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Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's New Music Fest taps baroque specialists

Robert Rowat

"Like many children, my first instrument was the recorder," recalls composer Rodney Sharman. "I fell in love with the hollow, innocent sound of tenor and bass recorders in particular."

That childhood fascination stuck with Sharman, who, throughout his career, has been drawn to the tone colour of instruments normally associated with baroque and Renaissance music. As curator of two concerts at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's upcoming New Music Festival, Sharman will indulge this affinity by bringing together two normally distinct communities: contemporary composers and early music specialists.

A collaboration among the VSO, Early Music Vancouver and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, New music for old instruments will take place at Vancouver's Christ Church Cathedral on Jan. 25 and 28, and will explore the surprisingly large catalogue of recent works for period instruments. The Jan. 25 concert will be chamber music; the Jan. 28 concert presents symphonic works. (Detailed programs are available here.)

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"It feels like something very natural to me," says harpsichordist, conductor and co-curator Alexander Weimann, reminding us that early music specialists regularly perform music that's new to them.

"The so-called early music repertoire holds plenty of lesser-known composers," he continues. "We are often approaching unfamiliar territory and jumping into adventurous waters, having to unearth what the composer might have had in mind, and trying to comprehend and learn another musical language. Playing a contemporary piece has the advantage that we are able to ask the composer if we don’t understand some of what is written down, a luxury we can’t enjoy in early music."


A highlight of the Jan. 25 chamber music concert will be Peter Hannan’s Trinkets of Little Value in its original instrumentation for soprano, flute, recorder, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord. The version for modern orchestra, commissioned by the Winnipeg Symphony in 1991, is a Canadian classic. Watch this virtual orchestra version:

"Hannan’s text is from the little word and phrase book from Jacques Cartier’s second voyage (1535), Iroquois to French," explains Sharman. "It is the first mention of the word 'Canada' in the Western alphabet. It seemed a fitting way to commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary, as Hannan’s piece is a creative and critical take on Canada’s colonial past.

"As a companion piece, I chose an undated, anonymous motet for solo voice from New France, likely from the late 17th or early 18th century. I sang it to Alex Weimann when we were going through programming possibilities, and I hope the audience feels the expression of discovery and delight I saw on Alex’s face at hearing something 'new' that is at least 300 years old."

Sharman and Weimann clearly had a lot of fun building these concert programs. In addition to the Hannan work, the Jan. 25 performance includes György Ligeti's Continuum for solo harpsichord, Louis Andriessen's Ende for solo recorder, and An Overture for Joy for flute, violin, cello and harpsichord by Vancouver composer Christopher Reiche.

Senza vibrato

Composer Jocelyn Morlock's Golden, for voice and string orchestra, will be featured on the Jan. 28 program. "I loved Renaissance vocal and instrumental music from the first time I heard it," she tells us, describing the appeal of composing music for ancient instruments. "There is a purity about it, and a sort of stillness and focus (especially in senza vibrato timbres) that I find incredibly appealing. I love the natural harmonics which are so idiomatic on the strings, and the pristine brightness of their tone. It was thrilling to employ these instruments in somewhat unconventional ways, with whispering and percussive sounds, that expand the palette of colours we might expect."

For American countertenor Reginald L. Mobley, the soloist in Morlock's Golden, the shift from baroque to contemporary music is natural. "Everyone came to [early] music from a more modern stance," he reflects. "Whether it be modern classical training, rock, country, gospel or jazz, historically informed performance practice wasn’t our first relationship with music, nor our first love."

Reginald L. Mobley sings 'Crede l'uom' from Handel's Il Trinfo del Tempo with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra under Alexander Weimann.

Sharman and Weimann chose Golden as the centrepiece, building the rest of the orchestral concert outward with complementing and contrasting works. They include the premieres of Thierry Tidrow's Ricercar for solo violin and Linda Catlin Smith's Sinfonia as well as arrangements of some old-time jazz/pop songs.

'Bein' Green'

"I knew of Reggie Mobley’s dream of singing old standards with baroque orchestra, and asked him for his favourites, from which Alex and I chose two songs," explains Sharman, who arranged Cole Porter's “Ev’ry Time we Say Goodbye” while Weimann arranged the Gershwin brothers' "Lady be Good." Mobley will also sing Joe Raposo's "Bein' Green," previously arranged by Weimann for countertenor (and Early Music Vancouver director) Matthew White. "Alex’s string writing is filled with rich inner parts and ornamentation," adds Sharman, "and has a feeling of suspended time like Gregorian chant."

Since countertenor Mobley's first loves were jazz and gospel, he says he's amply prepared. "I believe there to be a similar spirit shared between baroque music and jazz. I would even go as far to say that jazz is the true spiritual successor to the baroque period. So when I first came to baroque music, I made an immediate connection from my 'parent' genres, and it still informs how I perform to this day. This concert, in my mind, involves ... bringing my current love home to meet the parents."

Those standards will bring the formal part of the concert to a conclusion and transition to improvisations by Weimann, Mobley and VSO music director Bramwell Tovey. "Bramwell is a wonderful jazz pianist," enthuses Sharman. "Expect the artistic bar to be high, and the venue’s bar to be open."

New music for old instruments I and II take place Jan. 25 and 28, respectively, at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver.

Explore more:

A beginner's guide to Timo Andres: 6 pieces you should know

Mahan Esfahani: 'There is no end to expanding one's mind'

Listen to CBC Music's 24/7 Baroque stream