This year’s Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival had a little twist to it. Generally the festival features new music by living composers but this year, three Frank Zappa compositions were performed.
Frank Zappa, born December 21, 1940, passed away after succumbing to prostate cancer December 4, 1993. In his lifetime Mr. Zappa released 62 albums (10 of which contained classical music), and 35 post-humous releases (with many more to come out of the Zappa Family Trust archives).
The concert, which kicked off Saturday, January 25, 2014, featured ‘G-Spot Tornado‘ from Zappa’s 1984 instrumental album ‘Jazz From Hell‘. The album was written and performed on the synclavier and Zappa proclaimed that this piece was impossible to be performed by humans.
Fast-forward to the year 1991 when German chamber ensemble Ensemble Modern approached Zappa after his compositions were chosen along with John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Alexander Knaifel, to be featured at Franfurt Festival in 1992. Ensemble Modern really liked the piece and asked if they could have an arrangement of it for the concerts. Zappa complied and Ali Askin orchestrated it. They ended off their concerts with the piece. Nineteen Zappa compositions were performed in a series of concerts September 17-28, 1992, in Frankfurt, Berlin and Vienna.
The other Zappa compositions at this year’s festival were Dog Breath Variations, on Monday night (also done by Ensemble Modern), originally on the 1969 Mothers of Invention album ‘Uncle Meat‘. In the 74 bars of music there are no fewer than 59 changes of time signature; a very complex piece. And on Wednesday night, ‘The Perfect Stranger‘ from the 1984 album Pierre Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger was performed. The WSO pulled off all three pieces brilliantly.
When asked what it was like to conduct Zappa’s music, WSO Conductor Alexander Mickelthwate said, “Amazing! I have been wanting to do Zappa for years.”
Quite fittingly, the second piece on the first night was a Pierre Boulez composition ‘Le soleil des eaux‘ (The Sun of the Waters) featuring Winnipeg soprano Sarah Kirsch. At a young age, Zappa was a fan of Boulez, when in the 12th grade he purchased ‘Le Marteau Sans Maitre‘ (The Hammer Without A Master). Zappa also admired Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varese. He would include a Varese quote out of respect on the back of his album covers,”The modern day composer refuses to die.”
For Frank Zappa’s 15th birthday present, his only wish was to phone the 73-year-old Varese who was living in New York’s Greenwich Village, which his parents allowed him to do. Zappa loved Varese’s Ionisation album (1930), the first Western piece of classical music to be performed solely by percussion (with a touch of piano as well).
Next up was Torontonian Owen Pallet‘s ‘Violin Concerto’. Pallet also had 2 other pieces performed in the festival at Monday’s show. Pallet is best known for his solo recordings as Final Fantasy (he dropped the FF name in 2009 so as not to be confused with the popular video game series). Accomplished violinist Karl Stobbe played beautifully on this selection.
After the intermission, former Radiohead lead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood‘s Canadian premiere ‘48 Responses to Polymorphia‘ was performed. This piece was inspired by Krzysztof Penderecki‘s ‘Polymorphia‘ written over 50 years ago.
Ending the first night was the Arvo Part composition, ‘Litany‘ for soli, mixed choir and orchestra. Arvo Part has been dubbed one of the most important composers of our time. The four-piece Hilliard Ensemble provided amazing vocal sounds along with the Winnipeg Singers choir. The Hilliard Ensemble (countertenor, baritone and two tenors) were also featured on all five pieces on day two of the 7-day festival. They are considered to be one of the world’s finest vocal chamber groups. This is just a small example of some of the amazing talent that the New Music Festival has brought to Winnipeg to warm us up for this mid-winter extravaganza.
Also featured on day two of the festival were Veljo Tormis‘ ‘Kullervo’s Message,’ Gavin Bryars‘ ‘Selections From the First Book of Madrigals’, Barry Guy‘s ‘Un Coup de Des‘, and Toshio Hosokawa‘s ‘New Work‘. The Hilliard Ensemble shone brightly on all four selections, showing what amazing range they had.
After the intermission, Phil Kline and Jim Jarmusch (yes, the legendary filmmaker) took to the stage with their feedback distorted guitars and created a soundtrack to some of Thomas Edison’s early films. They jammed with the Hilliard Ensemble and all of the night’s musicians for a short time then exited about halfway through their composition ‘Tesla in New York‘, leaving the other musicians to finish off the wonderful piece.
“There’s truth and there’s truth,” said Phil Kline. “I’ve tried to use as many of Tesla’s (and other character’s) actual recorded or written words as possible, though some are cut up or used in a different context.”
A nice added feature this year was films at the beginning of performances by local filmmakers Ed Ackerman, Robert Pasternak and Matthew Rankin.
Also new this year was Pop Nuit, two separate concerts on the first and last nights of the festival. On the first night at the Union Sound Hall, Winnipeg’s Prog-Rock aficionado’s Mahogany Frog dazzled the crowd, followed by the unpredictable Venetian Snares (Aaron Funk) with his amazing drill’n’bass / breakcore sounds. Venetian Snares had two of his ‘serious’ pieces performed on day four of the festival.
On the last night, The Millennium Centre (the old bank building near Portage and Main) was the venue for Colin Stetson who delighted the crowd on his baritone and alto saxophones. He arrived here straight from some gigs in Australia and I could have sworn he smuggled a didgeradoo choir and an elephant in that big ol’ saxophone. The sounds he produced were out of this world.
The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival is the only festival of its kind in North America. There are pre and post concert talks, discussions and Q+A’s with the composers and musicians and a few performances while performers and patrons mix and mingle.
All photos by Doug Kretchmer.