All photos by the author
When was the last time you went to the symphony? Recently, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra held their 13th annual New Creations Festival and it reminded me that orchestral music isn't just for boomers. The festival, which focuses on experimental bold creations, was co-curated this year by composer and indie-pop artist Owen Pallett along with the TSO's music director Peter Oundjian. Held between March 4th and 11th at Roy Thomson Hall, the festival offered up three evenings of music programming along with master classes and conversations with the featured composers.
You may know Owen Pallett from his own musical project under his own name (formally Final Fantasy) or his various string work with acts like Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Taylor Swift and more. That variety in pop and rock music speaks to what he is interested in showcasing on an orchestral, classically trained level; that big ideas cross genres. "I think all throughout every genre of music there is this tendency towards people making protest work towards larger structures, monolithic ideas, representations of the infinite and these are the sort of things that I'm personally aesthetically interested in," he said. Pallett continued, explaining to me that "the curation of the music in this festival aside from it being unified by it being performed by the orchestra (not to mention the ancillary events), it's hopefully unified by the political implications of certain aesthetic choices."
Each night of the festival opened with a commissioned short unique fanfare, such as Andrew Staniland's dissection of the Canadian national anthem Reflections on O Canada after Truth and Reconciliation. The opening night of the festival and featured the world premiere of Iris by Jordan Pal, the new composer in residence for the TSO, and Trauermarsch by Jörg Widmann. Pallett lovingly laughs, saying part in what piqued his interest in the piece was how it reminded him of a "Toronto fascination we have for the crappiest chord possible." He continued: "Every single time we find a chord that just is really fragrant and fermented we're always like 'yup, that's the chord!' The opening section of Jörg's piece seems to be all about him trying to find those chords. It touched me personally." Regardless of the fact that Widmann isn't from Toronto, the piece fit in perfectly and was well received. Polaris Music Prize winner Tanya Tagaq headlined with the world premiere of Qiksaaktuq, in which Tagaq performed along to scored material; mixing her improvisation with the semi-improvised brass guided by The Element Choir's Christine Duncan. The piece left me shaking.
The Alex Lukashevsky Trio took on the first night of post-concert duties, performing folk inspired by the tradition of Soviet classical composition. As Pallett said, "there's moments in that performance that even though he's playing an acoustic guitar and [Felicity Williams and Daniela Gesundhei] singing these songs in the English language that feel plucked right out of Stravinsky."
Violinist James Ehnes performed a concerto on the 8th (that Pulitzer Prize winner Aaron Jay Kernis wrote just for him.) Meanwhile, Pallett premiered his latest piece Songs From an Island—the first part of a larger work that Pallett hopes one day can be performed in its entirety. Pallett is not present in the performance of the piece—bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch took on vocal duties, bringing what Pallette calls "an incredible mix of masculinity and vulnerability to the role which I never really thought of." He further explained: "I'm so used to my words coming from my own mouth, seeing them come from someone else's mouth has been really interesting for me." Nico Muhly's Mixed Messages closed up the night, a piece inspired by miscommunication and Prince Nifty took on post-concert duties.
The final show opened and ended with pieces by Nicole Lizée, starting with her fanfaire Zeiss After Dark, and a world premiere of her new concerto Black MIDI with the Kronos Quartet (and a film element to match) as the festival finale. The post-show acted as the afterparty with the Cris Derksen Trio, made-up of Juno-nominated cellist Cris Derksen, Anishinaabe Hoop Dancer Nimkii Osawamick and drummer Jesse Baird.
"People associate the orchestra with old work just because it's been around for so long... it's not any more outdated than paint and canvas," Pallett says. "It's a wonderful representation of how important socialized arts funding is. You have these institutions that create concerts that are meant to preserve great works of society and make them available to people at a reasonable price considering the amount of effort that goes into them. I feel the same way about them as I do museums." For those looking for what Pallett refers to as symphonic gateway drugs, he says orchestral film music like the score of The Master or of Stanley Kubrick's films or the Alien soundtrack are a good start.
Get into it and get weird, friends. The symphony isn't just for your grandparents—it is cooler than you think.