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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Festival Preview: Ear Stretching in Toronto

Toronto's 21C Festival enters its sophomore year.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Kaija Saariaho
Toronto, Ontario is a little outside the usual beat for Superconductor, but with the slowed-down May schedule in New York a festival for new music by contemporary composers has caught the attention of this blog. The 21C Festival (May 20-24) is entering its second year. Over five nights and eight concerts, this is a vibrant celebration of modern music in Canada's largest city.

The central inspiration for this year's festival is Charles Ives, the American insurance executive-turned-composer who remains the keystone of important composers from the United States. A century ago, Ives' music cheerfully broke the rulebook for what art music should be with works like Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question that still challenge listeners today.
Stewart Copeland
"When Charles Ives was asked what he was up to, he would say 'I want to stretch your ears,'" says Festival benefactor Michael Koerner. This year's festival divides between Ives compositions and works by contemporary composers  "The 21C Music Festival is just about that: ear stretching."

The Festival opens with a concert featuring drummer, composer and self-proclaimed "rhythmist" Stewart Copeland, best known for founding the seminal post-punk band The Police. Mr. Copeland will premiere Off the Score, his latest collaboration with jazz pianist Jon Kimura Parker. The pair will be at the core of a quintet playing contemporary works including Mr. Copeland's own Coincidence or Convergence? commissioned by the Royal Conservatory of Music.

The next night puts the spotlight on Kaija Saariaho, who stands at the forefront of contemporary Finnish music, Her spell-binding works combine chamber textures with electronics to hypnotize the ear. This program features ace violinist Jennifer Koh and Ms. Saariaho providing electronic accompaniment. The program features two works by the Finnish composer, including the North American premiere of her piano trio Light and Matter. Ms. Saariaho's music returns on May 23, with a performance of her work Grammaire des rêves.

The vast distances between Canadian cities underline the dedication of the Bicycle Opera Project, who travel on two-wheelers from city to city bringing contemporary opera to the masses. They wheel into the Royal Conservatory for the premiere of new works. The evening will begin in the outdoor Reta Lila Weston Music Court,  with the world premiere of Chris Thornborrow's Ride of the Bicycle Bells, to be followed by a program of contemporary opera to be performed indoors.

Ives' music is at the center of Illusions, a new 70-minute multimedia stage work premiering on May 22. Illusions features new works for piano trio, contemporary chamber ensemble and baritone, with Ives' own Piano Trio No. 3 interspersed with contemporary creations by new composers. The evening opens with the premiere  Street Scene at the Center of the Multiverse by Michael Occhipinti, a title that would have delighted Ives himself.

Things move into high gear on on May 23 with Spin Cycle, a 360 degree music experience incorporating four composers, three stages, the award-winning Afiara Quartet (currently the resident quartet at the Royal Conservatory) and the DJ Skratch Bastid. The Afiara Quartet will play four world premieres, which Skratch Bastid will remix and rescratch into a new piece, which the string quartet will then play with or against.

On May 24, this Canadian festival goes south of the border with Encuentros, incorporating new music from Canadian and Latin American composers working in tango, flamenco, bossa-nova, Afro-Samba, fandango and jazz. Guitar virtuosos Grisha Goryachev and Fabio Zanon will be joined by Argentinean bandeneon player Héctor del Curto, composer-pianist Serouj Kradjian and Colombian vocalist Maria Mulata. This edgy program will culminate in the Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos, ending the festivities on a Brazlilian note.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.