By: William Littler Music Columnist, Published on Fri May 31 2013
BEIJING—Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s acknowledgment of the increasing role of China in Canada’s future has already produced political and economic consequences. Perhaps coincidentally, those consequences now extend to the realm of music.
Last weekend Toronto’s Soundstreams returned from an appearance as the first group of Canadian musicians invited to the prestigious Beijing Festival of Modern Music.
It was the first time in the festival’s 11 year history that any Canadian music had been heard and according to Soundstreams artistic director Lawrence Cherney, it was also the largest exposure ever given Canadian music in Asia.
Six Canadian composers — Dorothy Chang, Brian Current, Alexina Louie, Michael Oesterle, R. Murray Schafer and Gilles Tremblay — were featured alongside Polish composer Krysztof Penderecki, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, Taiwanese composer Chichun Lee and Chinese composer Fuhong Shi in the pair of programs presented by the visiting Torontonians.
The programs included a new piece, Distances, specially commissioned by Soundstreams from Fuhong Shi and premiered in Toronto at Koerner Hall on the eve of the tour.
The new piece involved the innovative combination of a quartet of musicians from Taiwan’s Chai Found Music Workshop, playing traditional Chinese instruments, with the Accordes Quartet and six other Soundstreams players, playing western instruments, all under the direction of Vancouver's based conductor Les Dala.
“I had wanted for some time to include Canadian music in our festival,” acknowledged its artistic director, composer Xiaogang Ye, vice-president of the hosting Central Conservatory of Music. “And I was impressed by what heard. These are amazing musicians.”
Nor was Xiaogang Ye’s enthusiasm unshared. Audience receptions were cordial and Polish composer Krzysztof Wollek, a member of the program committee of the celebrated Warsaw Autumn Festival, was sufficiently impressed to declare his intention to bring Soundstreams to the attention of his committee.
Wollek attended the festival as a member of the jury chaired by Kaija Saariaho charged with awarding a prize to the winner of an international competition for young composers.
As the competition transpired, a Chinese composer, Tian Tian, won the prize, with his Ring on August topping a list of 35 submitted orchestral scores from countries as far afield as Malaysia, Israel and Canada, evidence in itself of China’s increasing prominence on the international scene.
China embraces nine major music conservatories and it is through the Beijing Modern Music Festival that their students in composition acquire some of their first high level exposure to live performances of contemporary, western-style music. Some of these students are subsequently allowed to pursue graduate studies abroad.
Central Conservatory graduate Fuhong Shi was one of those students, who spent two years taking a master’s degree at the University of Victoria and four more taking a doctorate at the University of Toronto before returning to China as an assistant professor at her alma mater.
“It is still difficult to be a composer in China, as elsewhere,” she admits. “In China composition is an activity, not an occupation.”
Commissions are nonetheless coming her way in China, following those that launched her career in Canada.
Now at home in two worlds, her new piece symbolizes their coming together. “I was very impressed by the piece,” observed Krzysztof Wollek. “Unlike so many so-called fusion pieces, it respected the integrity of the different musical traditions.”
Thanks to an invitation from the Chai Found Music Workshop, whose members played the traditional Chinese instruments in her piece, Soundstreams was invited to precede its Beijing concerts with a pair of concerts at the National Concert Hall in Taipei, where western music already enjoys a home.
Indeed, the afternoon of Soundstreams’ first rehearsal, former Toronto Symphony Orchestra conductor Gunther Herbig was rehearsing Taiwan’s National Symphony Orchestra upstairs and on the evening of Soundstreams’ second concert, American opera diva Renee Fleming gave a recital on that same stage.
“The world of music is becoming increasingly international,” suggests Lawrence Cherney. “But Canadian music is still not as well known as it should be. Soundstreams is not a permanent ensemble.
We bring together the musicians we need for each project. For this tour, as for our concerts in Toronto, we are now able to draw on a pool of musicians able to play the music of any composer I invite to write for us.
“So far we have been mainly presenters. Our first international appearance was in Mexico (at the Cervantino Festival in Guanajuato) and this is our second. But I am hooked by the idea of Canada on the world’s stage.”
After these successes, Lawrence Cherney would do well to keep his bags packed.
Posted by: Soundstreams Canada -Toronto Concert Series on June 05, 2013.