Review: Nico Muhly and The KW Symphony

In Friday’s Record

Classical musicians, administrators and marketers all over North America are spending an increasingly large amount of time thinking of ways to get younger people interested in classical music. The two basic choices are luring more people into the existing concert hall or taking the ensemble to venues normally used for other types of performance. There are pros and cons to both strategies and each has their place.

An important pro in the alternate venue scenario is the atmosphere. When the music is removed from the heavily ritualized concert hall, the relationship between audience and musicians becomes more horizontal than vertical. The acoustic sacrifice required by these venues is often tempered by stronger sense of shared experience.

The Kitchener Waterloo Symphony played the first concert in their newly acquired space in downtown Kitchener. The rather grandly named Conrad Centre For The Performing Arts seats in the neighbourhood of 250 people, with the performance area just big enough to hold a full orchestra. As with all new spaces, there are growing pains, the chief of which on Wednesday evening was balance. The brass were particularly problematic not because they were playing too loudly but rather that the room is too small and the audience too close to allow all the sounds to mix together before hitting the ear.

American composer Nico Muhly programmed the concert around the passacaglia, which is a piece with a repeating bass line like that favourite of budding pianists everywhere: Heart and Soul. More broadly, the evening was about repetition, or in Muhly’s rather endearing vernacular, “piles of things that are the same.”

An instrumental arrangement of anthem by Purcell called Rejoice in the Lord Alway was a highlight of the first half. Its delightful opening is written over a ground bass derived from the descending scale that begins all bell-ringing in England and is responsible for the piece being nicknamed The Bell Anthem. The pattern functions like a pace car in auto racing in that is it repeated until all the bell ringers are suitably warmed up and ready to set off on the more complicated change-ringing patterns.

Richard Reed Parry‘s new piece For Heart, Breath and Orchestra showed great imagination and was at its best in its busy moments. The premise was that each player wear a stethoscope and play according to the rhythm of their own heart.

It may be that my ears just took a while to get used to the idea but since most people’s resting heart rate is roughly the same, at the beginning it seemed as if the musicians were just playing with poor ensemble rather than purposefully not together. The introduction of harp and celeste in the second movement immediately made everything more palatable & those instruments usually do & and by the end I was 100% on board.

Rather than wait for everyone to be seated after the intermission, a quartet started playing an excerpt of David Lang’s Sweet Air. Rather than feeling contrived or consciously barrier-breaking, the piece formed a charming bridge between the intermission chatter and the second half.

Two motets by William Byrd, arranged for orchestra by Nico Muhly, opened the second half proper but did not fare well in the dry acoustic. The arrangements introduced novel instrument combinations but even the new colours couldn’t help the lack of natural reverb that is such an intrinsic part of liturgical music.

Esther of Obohemia was there too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *