Our orchestral one-night stands

When 90 per cent of Canadian compositions are played only once, where’s our heritage?

Our orchestral one-night stands

The third movement of Alexander Brott’s Violin Concerto just scoots along like a bat out of hell. Muted trumpets, rattling percussion and pizzicato cellos urge the soloist along as she negotiates a slalom course of double stops, infernal country-style fiddling, and chromatic rising passages that could serve as the soundtrack for milk boiling over on a hot stove. Brott’s concerto received its New York City debut at Carnegie Hall in 1953, under the baton of Leopold Stokowski, no less. The New York Times reviewer called Brott’s concerto “original, brilliant, technically resourceful . . . one wonders here if there is not something really new under the sun in a composer’s approach to the modern concerto form.”

I was about to suggest you make a point of going to hear Brott’s concerto the next time your local symphony orchestra plays it. But that’s useless advice. Alexander Brott was a Canadian. He wrote his concerto more than half a century ago. And Canadian orchestras don’t play old Canadian music. In fact, they hardly ever play Canadian music that’s more than a few years old.

That’s a problem.

Of course it’s also a sweeping generalization. It is possible to find exceptions. But as a rule you would need a team of bloodhounds, a dowsing rod and stacks of orchestra calendars to find one or two cases a year of a Canadian orchestra performing part of our formidable musical heritage.

In September the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal played Kaleidoscope, a “symphonic fantasy” written by Pierre Mercure in 1948. The OSM’s crosstown rivals, the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal, recorded Kaleidoscope last year under the orchestra’s formidable young conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, along with much more familiar music by England’s Benjamin Britten and France’s Claude Debussy. An Australian reviewer for the MusicWeb website wrote that Kaleidoscope, not the European repertoire standards, is “the most exciting thing about this album, and the thing that makes it worth hearing.”

But again, that’s the exception: a piece written a half-century ago by a Montreal composer played by two Montreal orchestras a year apart. What’s more common is the sort of programs some large Canadian orchestras will play over the next several weeks. On Dec. 8 the Vancouver Symphony will play Strauss, Brahms and Lehar in a program dubbed “The Magical, Musical World of Vienna!” On Jan. 11 in Montreal the OSM will roll out the big Russians, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich. On Jan. 14 in Quebec City, it’s Germans for the Orchestre symphonique de Québec: Mozart, Beethoven and Hindemith. Two nights later the Calgary Philharmonic will roll out two Frenchmen, Debussy and Ravel, and a consummate American modern, Philip Glass. To hear some Canadian music, if that freakish impulse possessed you in the next while, it would help to be in Ottawa, where the National Arts Centre Orchestra will play Montrealer Ana Sokolovic’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed in 2007, along with some Sibelius and Chopin on Dec. 11 and 12.

Much of this is as it should be. Beethoven and Mozart are the backbone of orchestra concerts around the world because they were transcendent geniuses. Sibelius and Ravel are concert-hall regulars for similar reasons. But if you spend any time in this country’s concert halls, you learn to expect this sort of thing: something written by a German in 1815, something by a Finn from 1915, something by an American from maybe 1930, and something written last week in Edmonton that you needn’t worry about because you are in no danger of hearing it again.

Canadian orchestras do play Canadian music. Usually they play it once. A composer wins a commission, writes a piece. Sometimes it’s a full symphony or a sumptuous concerto, but more often, thanks to the request of the orchestra that commissioned it, it’s an apologetic thing under 10 minutes long that gets tucked in at the beginning of a concert so anyone who took too long to park the car won’t have to worry about missing any Mozart. And very often the first performance is the last time anyone will hear the thing. In rare cases a piece will bounce around among the nation’s orchestras for a couple of years, winning three or four more local premieres in front of other audiences who, like the crowd for the world premiere, have never heard the thing and needn’t fear having to sit through it again. And that’s the end of that.

The composer will probably be hired to write another new work somewhere. The orchestra will commission another new work. Among the large Canadian orchestras whose calendars I surveyed this season, half the Canadian music they’ll play this year is premieres, and almost all the rest is compositions less than a decade old. This constant churn makes Canada a pretty good place to write music for a living. “My standard line is that an unsuccessful Canadian composer gets more commissions than a successful American composer,” the U.S. composer and critic Kyle Gann has written. But while everyone is busy working on the next piece, that last one just goes away.

There’s even a place where the music goes when it falls silent. The Canadian Music Centre is a non-profit promoter of Canadian classical composition. It has offices in five Canadian cities, thanks to funding from governments, corporations and individual donors. It runs its own excellent little record company, Centrediscs, to document some of every year’s musical output. It is digitizing scores and putting ever more recordings of its associate composers’ music online. It loans scores to orchestras and smaller performing-arts organizations. In its Toronto regional headquarters just off downtown Yonge Street, the CMC keeps a free lending library of 18,000 scores written over the decades by almost 700 composers.

Ninety-nine per cent of the compositions have been performed only once.

“You can call it a one-night stand,” CMC executive director Elisabeth Bihl says. “Composers get commissioned, the piece has its premiere, and then it comes here to our archives.”

Let’s be frank about one reason for this. “A lot of it sucks,” Toronto composer Gary Kulesha says. Canadian music is hardly immune from the iron dictates of Sturgeon’s Law, named after the science-fiction author who decreed that “90 per cent of everything is crap.” The figure may be higher for Canadian music in the classical tradition, because so much of it was written in the late 20th century, when the very tenets of the tradition were under siege. Dissonance, serialism, random chance and other assaults on ancient ideas of melody and order left little room, in some circles, for a pretty melody or a beguiling development. Many Canadian composers joined the assorted revolutions. In many cases what resulted might pass muster by the criteria of some academic analysis, but even sophisticated audiences were left cold and would be again.

Yes, but. For one thing, plenty of Canadian composers felt no obligation to follow the atonal diktats of the various academic revolutions. Brott, Jacques Hétu, Malcolm Forsyth and others wrote music that, while sometimes bracing, left plenty of room for melody, rich orchestration, and a romantic heart.

For another thing, audiences’ tastes have evolved. Works that once emptied concert halls now routinely get respectful, and sometimes affectionate welcomes. Even Ottawa’s NAC Orchestra under Pinchas Zukerman, a conservative who prefers not to let Mozart and Brahms out of his sight, pays due attention (often under guest conductors) to Stravinsky, Sibelius, Bartók and other 20th-century trailblazers. Dissonance and floating rhythms no longer send the blue-rinse set flocking to the exit. The Rest is Noise, a history of 20th-century music by Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music writer, was one of the surprise publishing successes of the past year.

So audiences can handle a curveball. They’re having to anyway, because orchestras do serve up brand-new homegrown works. But when listeners are lukewarm about those premieres, who can blame them? So is everyone else. There’s less value in what’s disposable, and music that is forever being flushed in favour of next week’s orchestral mayfly is entirely disposable. It didn’t take long as a late-blooming concertgoer for me to figure out that I needed to learn a bit about Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert because I was going to be hearing from them again. There’s no such incentive with a new Canadian work that will never grow old in public. Conductors don’t take it to heart. Younger composers don’t model their work on it. Even sophisticated listeners don’t learn to recognize and cherish its contours.

Kulesha, a composer with rich melodic gifts, has watched some of his own best work vanish down the memory hole too. His First Symphony, a sprawling 1998 work that requires two conductors working simultaneously, drew rhapsodic reviews when the Toronto Symphony premiered it in 1998. The Globe and Mail reviewer said it should be recorded at once. It never was. Now, only a decade later, nobody’s performing it either. “That really irks me,” Kulesha said.

Like every musician I spoke to for this article, Kulesha has his own list of Canadian works that audiences would love to hear if anyone gave them another chance: Samuel Dolin’s Second Symphony, John Weinzweig’s Violin Concerto, Clermont Pépin’s Rite du soleil noir from 1955. I’ve been deeply moved by recordings of Jacques Hétu’s Second Piano Concerto and an alternately brooding and festive 1984 suite, really a symphony, by Malcolm Forsyth called Atayoskewin. Forsyth moved to Edmonton from South Africa in 1968; Atayoskewin, written 15 years later, sums up his attempts to understand his adopted land, its Aboriginal roots, its folk sources and wide spaces. It accomplishes what music should: it speaks to the heart and the mind. It makes no sense to let it, and so much other great music, fall silent.

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