Concert reviews

Concordia composition concert

April 2019

There is a tradition of having end-of-year concerts in most of the music departments and conservatories around the globe. Concordia University music department is not an exception. The 2019 concert was held at the D.B. Clarke Theatre in Montreal on April 15th. The repertoire included the compositions by the students of Georges Dimitrov and Sandeep Bhagwati. However, in the absence of Sandeep, it was Georges, the one-man army, who organized the event in collaboration with the students themselves.

The event streamed quite smooth, the program notes were clear enough, and the stage was much more organized and less messy and overcrowded than the previous years. For any audience, a glance at the program notes was enough to observe the outstanding variety and diversity of styles, instrumentation and medium. Diversity, however, can function as a double-edged sword; it can help to keep the event interesting for the curious audience, and at the same time it has the potential to eradicate the coherence and fritter the concert into tiny particles of 2-5 minutes pieces. The 2019 end-of-year concert, had both elements. This review does not cover every single performance of the concert. However, being absent from the list of reviewed works does not necessarily mean that those compositions did not have enough material to discuss nor does it give any extra credit to the mentioned ones.

This review does not have the nature of academic evaluations where the instructor considers not only the final product but also the process of creation and the personal development of the student. Rather, it investigates the compositions from the observer’s point of view. Obviously, one cannot disregard the fact that organizing such concerts with a limited budget and very little rehearsal time might not end in perfect interpretations of the student works and any critique would seem unfair without considering them. With all respect and appreciation to those frustrating efforts, this review stands aside from the practical limitations and discusses not the process of production but only the final result, as it happened on stage; for both its compositional and performance qualities.

The concert started with “Habitus” by Aidan Saunders. Composed for a piano quartet, it opened with a repetitive progression of arpeggiated gestures on piano. Strings emerged one after the other, softly, trying not to disturb anybody, even themselves. The piano was located so distant from the string instruments, and obviously one could not expect a meaningful acoustic balance. However, for this particular piece, the seating plan worked well, because the strings were asked to play in ultra-low dynamics, much softer than the piano and the only parameter that could make them relatively in balance was the fact that the piano was located far enough. Not following any particular aesthetics of repetition or simplicity, as of the Minimalists or Wandelweiser, the piece lacked a little bit of variety and adventure. The piano gestures remained almost unchanged until the very end, where performers left the stage in their meditative night mood.

“Birdsong 5 AM” by Bethany Marsden was the second in the row. The variety of additive rhythms was the first aspect to notice, while the instrumentation raised curiosity even before the beginning. Composed for three flutes and a clarinet, the piece covered a very limited sound register. As birds usually communicate within a small frequency range, the choice of instruments was a wise decision for a birdsong. However, the composer was quite conservative in covering the high stratospheric registers which is a problematic range in both flute and clarinet. Writing for one’s own instrument is a solid departure point for any young composer. However, in her future orchestration and composition studies, Bethany will certainly have the chance to go beyond writing for woodwinds to explore the orchestral textures which are less known to her.

The next video projection/composition was “Shibumi’s Phroniren” by Boris St-Pierre. At a glance, the video consisted of a series of violent acts and aggressive behaviour like cutting people’s heads by a samurai sword in a pseudo-godfatherish atmosphere. However, the real violence was absent, both in the video and the soundtrack. It remains unknown that if one listens to the music without the video, how can she make a mere guess about the super aggressive nature of the scenario? The sound engineer in the hall probably had the answer: By playing the music super-loud!

“The Den / Scavenger calls cougar to Deer,” a collaborative composition by Coralie Gauthier and Meghan Riley opened the discussion about the instrumentation once again. It was composed for a single bass and three alto singers in addition to the harp and electronics. One might ask immediately, what is the virtue of having three altos beyond the practical purposes of having the performers at disposal? In terms of aesthetics, however, this choice proved harmless here as it gave the piece a sense of coherence and helped to create a homogeneous atmosphere while the electronically modified harp added a layer of mystic character to the entire soundscape. Another aspect of the piece was the minimal choreography of hands performed by singers through expressive gestures even before they start to sing.  This fantasy of not singing merged smoothly to the second part where they were actually singing and at the same time trying to keep the choreography equally expressive.

“Felt Fought Free and Breathe” was a solo piano piece performed by the composer, Willem Burnaby. Only two minutes and thirty seconds long, the music had enough variety and contrast relative to its length. The question for Willem is a common question to any composer who is composing for his/her instrument: to what extent the composer adapts the piece to his own technical abilities? As mentioned in Bethany’s case, having the courage to perform one’s own composition on stage is a substantial experience for any composer. However, Willem might alternatively think that one day, he might have the chance to work with a more technically advanced concert pianist. Then he will be able to take more challenging adventures rather than staying in the safe domain of common techniques, secure enough for himself. A guideline for young composers might suggest not to bound their explorations to their own performance limitations.

“Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si Do” by Eric Au for solo vibraphone and pre-recorded audio was quite outstanding in terms of coherency of aesthetics. The intentional use of humour, embedded within the score was very well interpreted by the vibraphone player, Stratsimir Dimitrov during the performance. Repetitive presence of a simple ostinato of seven basic notes was the strophic refrain, hovering above the piece like a wandering spirit. The vibraphone player was synchronized with an inaudible steady beat played for him through headphones while in particular spots, some notes of the ostinato were absent in his part and were played through speakers as electronic fake notes. The interaction between these fake notes and the real notes was the central idea of the piece. It was also a clever decision to put the speakers very close to the vibraphone so that the distinction between the fake notes and the real ones was even more abstract. The only part that could be improved was the rate by which the fake notes were presented; a few notes came first, and after a long absence a whole bunch of others emerged suddenly. The composer could be more organized in terms of this very critical compositional element: the criteria of presentation. The ending was well thought: a series of fake notes streamed out with the performer mimicking them into thin air. This was a great example to showcase how a single idea can handle an entire work if it is self-consistent enough.

The twelve-tone string quartet by Isaac Rosen-Purcell was called “Tone Row Row Row and Variations.” The formal structure of the piece was well crafted. It started by a sustained atmosphere from which a more vibrant and abrupt second section emerged. The following pizzicato texture constructed a balanced dialogue with the sustained notes. Being interrupted by a general pause after the middle section, the piece ended in a sustained atmosphere, similar to the opening. By concluding the piece with a reminder of the opening, the composer might be accused of choosing the easy way. However, this decision at least guarantees the coherency of the form. One disregarded aspect from which the performance suffered much was the absence of vibrato indications in string writing. Where the composer does not give any vibrato instructions, the string players will take advantage to interpret the piece as they wish, and not surprisingly in this performance, in four different ways. The sustained part of the piece could best be performed senza vibrato, deep and dry, as the selected tone row suggested.

“Grain Thoughts” by Reade Wildman was an abstract electroacoustic piece accompanied by a video projection of Geometrical cyber forms. The variety of the crafted sound objects was outstanding, and the relation between presence and density of the material was convincing. The result was five minutes of homogeneous electronic music well welded to the visual presentation. However, the analogous presence of the base sounds was something that can be improved in future performances. Low-frequency sounds have the potential to occupy space and affirm their quivering physical presence. While being present for the entire duration of the piece, they might occupy too much space and make the audience indifferent to them and as a result, will reduce their quivering physical power.

Although conducted shyly by the composer Xander Simmons, the performance of “The Circular Ruins” provided an example of meaningful conducting; where the conductor does not play the role of a metronome by only counting the beats but also provides expressive instructions and musical cues. The music also demonstrated a personal exploration of the composer in the domain of experimental textures and extended performance techniques. In parallel with Eric Au’s piece, this was another example of thoughtful amplification where the use of microphone and speakers is absolutely necessary to visualize the microscopic sound gestures, performed by the instruments or the vocal cords of the singers. The instruments accompanied the singers in the shift between various vocal textures from singing mode to whispering mere text. However, the instrumental part and its intercourse with the vocalists had the potential for further improvements. As a  conducting remark, the ending silence after the last note could be at least 20 seconds longer with the conductor and the performers standing still in their positions, in silence. The sudden stop at end was more like a car hitting the parking wall after returning from a pleasant journey.   

“Annihilation” by Benjamin Delaney was the closing piece of the event. In general, this year’s compositions showed an obvious inclination of composers towards more experimental techniques comparing to their compositions of the last year; Ben was not an exception. However, his use of vocalists was more conventional compared to his instrumental writing. Annihilation was a piece based on a movie with the same name. As the composer explained in a private conversation, the piece deals with three central ideas: Duplication, Mutation and Self-Destruction. These were sorts of fundamental information that could be reflected in the program notes, especially when the brochure was quite tolerant in adding information even about the long story of an Elf/Leprechaun emerging from the harpsichord in the rehearsal of another piece. The presence of these three ideas in Annihilation was not equally obvious. The idea of self-destruction was the most explicit with having performers leaving the stage; the two others needed more in-depth analysis to decipher. But, who says all the concepts and ideas must be crystal clear in the performance? The composer applied a non-parallel narrative in engaging these three concepts in his music. 

In general, this level of commitment and artistic engagement clearly demonstrates that this generation of young composers deserves to be supported by the University and the department. Also, as most of the pieces were performed by the composition students themselves, this was a substantial opportunity for them to have feedback from performance teachers as well. Surprisingly enough, none of the professors in the music department were present at the concert, as far as I could see. Although one might argue that this event has happened amid the exam period while everyone is busy around the campus, this is not a good excuse for the music community not to provide support. For the following years, the organizers might consider shifting the composition concert date a little bit towards the end of the exam period to buy some more time for rehearsals and preparations and expect to have more audience from the community. Finally, Let us have the hope that this review could roughly provide some feedback. Although it can be interpreted as a subjective reflection from the perspective of a single observer, at least it can assure the composers that their voices are heard somehow. 

Roozbeh Tabandeh

April 2019


Intention et Mémoire | Quatuor Bozzini

September 2017

It is always a pleasure to participate in Quatuor Bozzini concerts; Such a kind-hearted and professional musician with a high orientation towards contemporary music. They are fabulous risk takers who decided to dedicate their entire career to living and emerging composers instead of sticking to the safe repertoire of the well-established giants as an agent of success and popularity. But this time their concert evoked curiosity even more, as they performed a piece by Cassandra Miller, a Canadian composer who won the prestigious Jules Léger award 2016, the highest honour for composers in Canada.

The concert took place at Chappelle Historique du Bon-Pasteur, a well-known and intimate concert hall in Montreal. The seating plan and the general acoustic is charming except the fact that there is constant ambient noise of D#, mixing profoundly with the harmonic structure, particularly audible during the rests and low dynamics.

The concert repertoire consisted of two pieces. The first one was the 28 minutes piece called About Bach by the so-called composer, Cassandra Miller, and the second was the 55 minutes Piano Quintet by Bryn Harrison, a British composer born in 1969. In the latter, Philip Thomas was the piano soloist.

As indicated in the concert notes, About Bach was an expansion of another work, Miller composed earlier for solo viola. The piece was based on endless repetitions of a seven notes ostinato (C#-D-E-F#-G-A-B), generally highlighting a B natural minor scale. For the whole duration of the piece, this ascending scale was hovering over, and in the background, three other instruments were in action. The background texture was monorhythmic all the time with a combination of 16th notes, 8th and dotted 8th notes alongside with longer durations in a very abrupt fashion. There were no dynamic change in the whole piece, as the background was mostly very dry in the mezzo forte level and the seven-note ostinato was always calm and smooth. The only guarantee that kept the soft ostinatos audible among the whole abrupt texture of the other strings was the fact that it was orchestrated at the highest possible register on the violin’s E string and all the other parts were in the mid-low range of the string quartet. There was no interaction between the foreground and background events, and the hypnotic repetition of this endless combination did not change until the very end. However, there was an interesting visual exchange between the two first violins. In the beginning, the first violin played the ostinato six times and then the second violin merged in unison for a couple of notes and took the role so that the first violin could join the viola and cello to perform the background. The number of repetitions in this exchange of roles reduced gradually towards the end. Finally, each violin played the row of notes only once, and the integration of musical events became denser than the beginning. However, this specific aspect of the piece is unlikely to be heard in the recording especially if they play with a perfect intonation (which is hard to achieve in that very high register).

The second piece was a combination of a sparse piano texture with a layer of glissandos and nervous tremolos for strings in their high register. For the half duration of the piece, there were no bass notes, and the only contrasting element was the occurrence of occasional pizzicato gestures in few. The texture was very homogeneous. However, every event seemed to be entirely random and sparse. Towards the end, the abrupt events came together a little bit to shape more integrated textures. In a few occasions, the piano played the same rhythm as the strings, and the start point of the glissandos matched the piano notes in unison. After a long gaze at shapeless clouds; some significant figures came to the front. However, the same feeling could happen in a half duration and the 55 minutes was utterly unnecessary for this set of events.

Roozbeh Tabandeh

September 2017


Broadway Boogie-Woogie 

SMCQ 50 ans | September 2016

This short review will present the Broadway Boogie-Woogie concert, a part of a concert series entitled as SMCQ 50 ans. The SMCQ (Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec) is a Canadian, Quebec-based organization with an interest mostly focused on the contemporary music and this concert cycle is happening in its 50th year of activity.

The event was organized in the Pierre Mercure concert hall in Montreal, a venue with an outstanding acoustics. However, the first rows of the ground floor level are much lower than the scene, so it is not easy to see the events happening behind the first row of performers.

The concert was performed by the Ensemble de la SMCQ under the direction of Walter Boudreau. The ensemble was a combination of various musicians who were collaborating with the SMCQ in previous projects. In a glance,  rather than a single ensemble with a clear identity, the SMCQ ensemble is basically a closet of musicians that each conductor can open and take out what he/she wants. For this particular event, applied a different seating plan for every single piece relative to the instrumentation.

The general title, the Broadway Boogie Woogie refers to a specific musical genre that was popular around 1920 and 1930 in Afro-American communities in the United States. It is also the name of a famous painting by Piet Mondrian who was a fan of the style. The concert program included four pieces and one video projection performance.

Being composed in 1986, the first piece was piece no.2 for Small Orchestra by the American-Mexican composer Conlon Nancarrow. The piece was highly syncopated, and the rhythm drive was very strong and unpredictable, a good vibe at the beginning of the concert.

The second piece was Fantasque by the Canadian composer Jean Papineau-Couture, composed for solo cello. Caroline Milot was the cellist. Her solid interpretation and technical virtuosity was quite remarkable; however, her highly exaggerated theatrical movements were a little bit off the aesthetics of the piece. If one closed her ears and only tried to anticipate the sound only by looking at the performer, his first guess was probably a cello sonata from the late romantic composers with a super dense dramatic proposition, which was by the fact very far from the Fantasque.

Composed for a xylophone quartet, a saxophone trio, percussion and live electronics, the third piece, the Tétrachromie by Pierre Mercure was interesting in terms of instrumentation. However, one could not figure out the reason that the performers of the xylophone and the percussions were the same. They had to run acrobatically around the scene to reach the right instrument at the right moment; the task was quite tricky and equally distracting. The only outcome was the instant increase of the adrenaline level in the bloodstream!  

Having a video as an intermission was a clever strategy to distract the audience from the immense changes in the stage setup which needed a considerable amount of time.

The last piece was the longest one: The Materie by Louis Andriessen. The 25 minutes duration indicated in the program notes immediately implied that keeping the coherency of the form will be the immediate challenge in this single movement piece. The significant aspects of the composition appeared soon after the first minute. The clever seating plan helped to elaborate the instrumentation ideas. A non-penetrable brass wall was located in front of a soft and transparent mesh of female choir and pianos which were mostly written in a regular rhythm and sustained character. The interesting fact was that while the brass were playing, the choir part could not pass through the wall unless there was a hole (moments of silence) in it. Though this, the composer managed to create enough contrast by the dialectical relation between different bodies of sound. However, it was not the way that the piece evolved until the end.

In the middle section, there were two iconic moments: the entrance of a solo narrator and the addition of a third piano on the back side of the hall; a composer’s attempt to make use of the architectural space of the venue and keep the audience interested for a few more minutes, particularly when the music itself does not have much more to offer.

Roozbeh Tabandeh

October 2016