Sound and Space -‘PRISM’, a concert by the University of Alberta Music Department

Entering the Wispear Hall with the talented University of Alberta Symphony playing a Beethoven Overture was like having a nice soapy shower after 9 months of not bathing. It’s been about that long since I’ve heard a good live concert; my co-workers penchant for rap, ‘hard dance’ music and ‘screamo’ rock had left a hole not only in my mind, but also my heart.

Following the Overture was a performance by a saxophone soloist playing 2 notes accompanied by reverb. No further comment seems necessary.

Following this was a refreshing performance by an Indian ensemble, with sitar, tabla a dulcimer-like instrument and a bright silver flute. It seems so amazing that professional players from India can rock out in the far north. Music is pretty universal, it’s something we all can enjoy.

Next up was a saxophone ensemble playing 2 chorales by Bach. I have never been fond of the saxophone, as it always sounds flat, but this performance, probably because of the great baritone saxophones, was surprisingly rewarding.

Next was a ‘performance’ by an ensemble specializing in improvisation. It began with a stereophonic crash of metallic ‘instruments’, and nearly knocked everyone’s knickers off! Experimental Improvised music seems to ride the razors edge as with the wrong people, it can devolve into a popularity contest of attention seekers: everyone is trying to do something unique and unexpected and have the last sound. One performer insisted on serenading me with castanets, right above my head. I like variety, but sometimes a freak show is just that.

The ‘Madrigal Singers’ sang an arrangement of “Amazing Grace”. I would have preferred a madrigal. Has the music world become infected by pop-music singing contests with overly melismatic expressions? Throwing in all these unnecessary notes exposes a singer, I wish they would remember that and just sing the necessary notes well, before throwing in all the others, which are frequently off key. Thankfully, this performance was not bad, but the programming seems quite odd.

The West African Music Ensemble began with lots of loud drumming and a clanging cow bell. I really wish cow bells were left on the cow and were never brought into a performance venue. They just sound ugly. When the dancers appeared in bright yellow t-shirts and colourful African print skirts, I was surprised that half of them were Asian. Seeing a young Asian man who cannot dance whatsoever on the stage of a great concert hall seems really unfair to classical musicians who practice for decades to earn that privilege, and here the wonderful orchestra players were stuck on the stage to witness this! I’m all for cross-cultural experiences, but putting these experiments with inexperienced beginners on stage for a public performance is just wrong.

There were some wonderful solo performances in the second half: a wonderful performance of Feux d’articife by Jacques Despres and a couple modern pieces, but Jerusalem, by Michael McGlynn was perhaps the highlight. I’m so pleased that music organizations are allowing for alternative styles of presentation, this one with a wonderful women’s choir arranged along the aisles of the orchestra. As original as this may seem to us now, this style of presentation has probably been around for thousands of years. It’s only really new to western art music.

There was some Gilbert and Sullivan on the program: Three Little Maids. Does the music department not have a good opera singer? Why trot out a couple guys, dressed as Japanese women acting silly?

The performance of the Enterprise String Quartet, which has a guitar instead of a viola, was refreshingly exquisite. The two violins alternated with skillfully played material. The only thing missing, really, was volume.

Another surprise was an aria by Bach for soprano and alto. I sometimes wonder what audiences think they are listening to, especially if the lyrics / text is in another language-German in this case. Does the average audience know the difference between Sacred music and Opera? In a way it doesn’t matter, but I was imagining explaining the difference: opera is staged, sacred music is not. I imagine questions / comments like “well they’re on a stage, so it’s staged, isn’t it?” My response: “no there are no sets or costumes, so it’s not ‘staged’ even though it’s presented on a stage.

I wish our music education system was more serious. Musicians don’t start wars, don’t usually hit each other to catch a ball, and generally enjoy co-operating to make something, music, better. Music is a way of expressing oneself without using stupid words. Music is also a good way to learn to listen. Something we could all improve upon. winspear


Playing for Jesus

After being forced to go to church every Sunday for 16 years as a child, it seems ironic that I now play two church services each Sunday at St John Lutheran in Edmonton, and quite enjoy the experience.

The first service, which is in German, is usually pretty straight-forward: there is a Prelude, a couple hymns (Lieder), parts of the mass are sung, there may be extra hymns when there is communion once and month and then a Postlude.

The English service can be tricky. There is also a Prelude, a couple hymns, several extra hymns for communion and a Postlude. (Sometimes after juggling three books I play the wrong hymn, or other accidents – like the massive hymn book falling on the pedal board, creating a massive roar of sound – were regular occurrences till I got my mojo.)

Oddly, after 5 months on the job, I have not discovered a single hymn by JS Bach. While listening to several of Bach’s Cantatas over the past couple of days preparing for the choir’s first rehearsal, I read a quote by a Swedish bishop that Bach’s Cantatas were the Fifth Gospel. High praise indeed!

I had dismissed Bach’s Cantatas as mediocre works without having explored them. I was a fan of the Passions, the fantastic keyboard suites (particularly the Partitas) and the sonorous concerti. Perhaps I was just overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the Cantatas: 200 sacred-text and about 15 secular-text. From the year 1723 until the end of his life in 1750, Bach had a ‘new’ Cantata performed in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche every week and holiday. Like most composers forced to produce at an unrealistic rate, Bach recycled music, and had a near army of offspring to rewrite his masterpieces.

At St John Lutheran in Edmonton there is a hymn before and after the sermon, Bach had half of the Cantata before and half after the sermon. Certainly his pastor’s message may have been overshadowed or perhaps more greatly appreciated by Bach’s musical frame.

Bach had a pretty standard formula for his Cantatas: Chorus, Recitative, Aria, Recitative or Arioso and Chorale. I would imagine that Bach had things under control, probably, or hopefully having the week’s Cantata planned in advance for rehearsal purposes. Musicians back in the Baroque period are thought to have been naturally virtuosic. I would imagine that from time to time there may have a musical train wreck. But like the Lutheran church I play at (sometimes after juggling three books I play the wrong hymn, or other accidents, like the massive hymn book falling on the pedal board, creating a massive roar of sound) I imagine Bach’s congregation was forgiving and understanding if the music was less than excellent. However, as one of the greatest composers in European history, Bach probably could pull any derailment back into order.

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