Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hamilton Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra with Miriam Khalil

 I attended a Hamilton Philharmonic concert Sat. April 9. Maestro Jamie Sommerville conducted a chamber ensemble of about 18 first desk players in a very satisfying and adventurous program featuring soprano Miriam Khalil. She seems to be headed for the "big career" possessing a beautiful (already) full lyric soprano voice, acting and interpretative ability, musicianship and physical presence. She sang Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare at Glyneboure and performed Mimi in Opera Hamilton's La Bohème (Musetta in Edmonton).
They opened with a lovely reading of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll which included some nice passages by Concertmaster Lance Elbeck.
Omar Daniel's Neruda Canciones followed. Dr. Omar is the director of the Composition, Electroacoustic Research and Performance Facility at the University of Western Ontario. He writes, as one would expect, "academic new music," and I liked the piece rather more than I had expected. Basing my opinion only on this piece, he is a fine composer, imaginative, working with facility and in great detail. The textures are varied and not unrelievedly contrapuntal. However, less sophisticated listeners, unfamiliar with the style, will always find this sort of music difficult.
Miriam Khalil brought the piece to life. I don't know how much new music she has performed but she certainly had no difficulty with this work. The vocal part is demanding covering spoken text, melodic passages and declamation (also tambourine playing!). She vocalized equally adeptly in all the registers of her voice and with evenness of colour. Dr. Daniel wrote long passages that demand dramatic singing and Khalil sang them with controlled intensity.
I had expected more of the same kind of music from Osvaldo Gollijov in the piece which followed the intermission, ZZ's Dream. I was pleasantly surprised. The work, based on a scene from on old Chinese epic, was reminiscent of French music of the early 20th. C. It was sensuous and sonorous, full of delicate colours evoking the "fairy tale" nature of its program.
They closed with an arrangement of Mahler's Rückert-Lieder. I'd forgotten how intimate are many of Mahler's songs. They lend themselves to this treatment as the piano often plays independent lines in counterpoint to the voice. Khalil acted the songs with her voice and expression, as one must do in interpreting art song. In the last song, Mitternacht, she sang out the final heroic stanzas, hinting at what her voice might become over time.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Electronics and Live Performance

     I attended another  concert in the Sundays at Three Lenten series at Central Presbyterian Sunday afternoon. The performers were flautist Sara Traficante and 'cellist Kirk Starkey. They began with Guillaume de Machaut (14th C., as you will remember your 1st year music history survey), included some Baroque and Romantic era pieces, Villa Lobos (this one from about 1950) and some New Music including one of Kirk's own compositions. The performances were very adept and the Hamilton audience rewarded the performers with a Standing O. That's not what this posting is about, however.

     Kirk played a movement from his piece "Four Quartets". It is for solo 'cello and live electronics. There's a contact mike on the 'cello and the sound is run through a computer which has been programmed to process the sound and then amplify it through a sound system. The sounds that you hear are either the sound of the live 'cello or those same sounds simultaneously modified by the technology. I am fascinated by all of this and really enjoyed the piece. 

     Innovative pieces like Kirk's aren't the only way that live performance and electronics are combined though. Here are some questions to think about. They certainly challenge me.

     Where, exactly, do we draw the line between legitimate artist endeavour and expediency? Indeed, is it necessary to draw such a line at all?

     I've long puzzled over the relationship between electronic media (in whatever form) and acoustic performers. What, for example, do you make of performances of Broadway shows to a prerecorded band? If you pay money to see such a thing (and were expecting live accompaniment), are you being cheated? The composer certainly intended that the people singing on stage would be accompanied by a live band. I don't even like to hear school choirs sing with prerecorded CDs (although the result can be hysterically entertaining when the choir can't hear the accompaniment.)

     For a time in the last century Musique concrète was in vogue. Composers recorded real sounds and then chopped up the tape and manipulated the sounds to make their pieces. The most famous example is Hugh LeCaine's Dripsody.  How is what they did then different from what anyone can do now using a keyboard to trigger digital samples and bussing them out to an array of effects?

     For a long time, legitimate composers prepared electronic tapes with which live musicians performed. Now this material is recorded to CDs and the performers "play along." How is this different from Music Minus One?
     Artistic intent, originality and competence are the obvious answers. Composers have always striven to incorporate current technology in their pieces and to achieve new musical effects. Sampling passages of somebody else's piece and incorporating them into yours is merely expediency and borders on plagiarism. If, however, the composer is trying to achieve sounds and effect hitherto unheard, let him go for it, and hope the public is engaged.