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


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