I am writing from my hotel room in Santander after a rewarding and successful conclusion to our tour with our educational workshop and concert at Centro Botin on Monday, May 22, 2023.
The Centro Botin is firstly an innovative and extraordinary building designed by architect Renzo Piano right on Santander Bay. You can find out more here. It is thrusting out over the sea and full of light and the vision of water which permeates the exhibition rooms of the art museum as well as the auditorio where concerts take place. Behind the stage, there is a huge window where you look directly out on the bay seeing sailboats, ferries, freighters and tugs.
It was very fitting at the Centro Botin to be able to perform a program which featured the great American innovator of the early twentieth century, Charles Ives. Our Ives selections included works that were performed spatially distributed around the audience including The Unanswered Question and a new arrangement I made for solo voice (Robyn Driedger-Klassen) and Turning Point Ensemble of The Housatonic at Stockbridge. Other Ives works included an exquisite performance of Ives Largo by clarinetist AK Coope, Domagoj Ivanovic and Jane Hayes, as well as two Adagios and the rhythmically crazy (and barely possible) In Re Con Moto et Al. Thank you to Robyn, Brenda, Jeremy, Sarah, and Greg for another fantastic performance of A Comparative Study from my Bee Studies (poetry by Renée Sarojini Saklikar). We were pleased to include some outstanding Spanish content with recently deceased Canadian/Spanish composer José Evangelista’s 12 folk melodies from Spain, and Manuel de Falla’s Psyché from 1924. Jeremy also played Trombone Walking where he enters from offstage, walks through the audience and then exits. This fit in very well with the spatial Ives works.
The concert was part of Centro Botin’s Classical Music series which was effectively sold out with an attendance exceeding 300. They listened carefully to everything (a number of our performers said you could hear a pin drop), and we were delighted with the strong and appreciative response. The concert started at 8 p.m. and ended after 9:30 p.m., so by the time we got to the end, the light had dimmed as night fell – that was very magical with the Ives final piece.
I should also say that the morning workshop was truly inspirational thanks to the attentive and interactive 9 and 10 year-old children, and a superb facilitation by Esteban Sanz Vélez, our General Manager Aniria’s father. He led expertly the responses of the children to the excerpts we played. All our ensemble members seemed to feel that it was a fantastic model for a truly animated and deep musical interaction with children of that age.
All in all, it was a satisfying and strong conclusion to our tour. I should say that is an honour to be part of such a highly skilled and musically collaborative ensemble. They were magnificent throughout including when we did three concerts in four days! Big thanks also to Aniria for her excellent support throughout the whole tour, and a special thank you to her for making this concert happen in her hometown. We were incredibly well taken care of here, and having a few extra days has allowed for excursions, more culinary high points, and museum visits including the Gaudi Caprice house in Comillas (a highlight for me) and the paleoitic Cave of Altamira with the still visible paintings of animals and signs dating from approximately 36,000 B.C. to 14,500 B.C.
We now return to Vancouver and look forward to next years twentieth anniversary season beginning in September. Stay tuned!
TPE on tour – Belgrade
It is Saturday in Belgrade, and we are at the airport on the way to Santander, Spain. First we will fly to Amsterdam, then back to Bilbao, followed by a bus ride into Santander, arriving around midnight. It will be a long but easy day as long as everything goes smoothly.
We have had two very eventful and rewarding days in Belgrade with a repeat of our ‘large’ Zagreb program on Wednesday night and then a varied and fascinating small chamber program on the Thursday night which featured most of our ensemble in groupings from solo to quintet. If was a terrific musical experience to perform in the Belgrade Student Philharmonic Theatre Wednesday. It was a clear and resonate acoustic, and we had access to a pristine Leon & Healy harp for Janelle, 9 different double basses to choose from for David, and top-line percussion instruments. It was rewarding to play again in this venue with Rivka Golani, Robyn Driedger-Klassen, and together. Rita Ueda came with us from Zagreb, and we used this time her home-made rainsticks in her composition.
On Thursday, we were at the Guarnerius Centre, an intimate small hall that felt like an old salon. Apparently it was a night club some half-century ago, but now is operated by our Belgrade hosts, the Kolundžija family which include the distinguished musicians violinist Jovan and pianist Nada. We performed several solos from our 1 + 1 + 1… film series (Ingrid, Janelle, Mary, Domagoj, Brenda and Robyn), and also several works with Serbian/Belgrade connections including premieres of works by Boriša Šablijc and Michael Pepa, and also performances from Ana Sokolovič (who is originally from Belgrade) and Katarina Curcin. We had a great response to the concert from a friendly audience who appreciated the diversity, and the opportunity to hear 11 smaller works. Thank you to the Canadian embassy who were represented by the Chargé d’affaire David Morgan, and who also sponsored a friendly reception after. We warmed up for the concert with a group dinner at a local restaurant arranged by Dom with not only amazing food but also spontaneous performances of members of our ensemble joining the live folk band which was serenading our table!
I should note that there was a sombre backdrop that was palpable during our time in Belgrade following the tragic mass shooting here at an elementary school on May 4th. Our bus on the trip to the hotel drove right by the school and we saw hundreds of flower bouquets laid there in commemoration of the children that lost their lives. I was told that the week before we arrived most concerts and other public events had been postponed. As we left for the airport, preparations were building for another mass protest against gun violence.
I will report again from Spain.
Artistic Director, Turning Point Ensemble
From Belgrade and Amsterdam Airports
TPE on tour – Croatia
Turning Point Ensemble hit the ground running on our European Tour 2023. We left Vancouver on Friday, May 12th with half of us routing through Amsterdam and the other half through Frankfurt on our way to Zagreb. We arrived in a fresh post-rain Zagreb on Saturday evening, and immediately got to work rehearsing on Sunday afternoon at the Croatian Composers Society space. This was the first opportunity to work with the amazing violist Rivka Golani on Michael Pepa’s new work Musical Offering No. 2 ‘Golani’ and we had an excellent session together. Also, we were joined by composer Helena Skljarov as we played for her for the first time her new commission ‘The Red-Haired Man’ based on a poem by Daniil Kharms. Her work is full of surprises (interspersed reading of poem and other announcements, an old metronome, fantastic sounds and textures) and imagination. We also were joined by composer Rita Ueda who came straight from the UK to Zagreb, bringing her rainstick making kits, and all the bells we need for the performance of her “Hummingbird Lovers”.
It has been so great to have our violinist Domagoj Ivanovic, who is Croatian and studied and grew up in Zagreb, in our midst. He ordered a superb multi-course Croatian dinner for us at a local restaurant including seafood appetizers, wonderful cheeses and salads, and even wild boar! Dom also troubleshooted for us getting us SIM cards, and making sure we were properly acclimatized.
Our first concert day came quickly on Monday. It was very rewarding to have the opportunity to perform our mostly Canadian program (Murray Schafer, Helena Skljarov, Michael Pepa, Michael Colgrass, Rita Ueda, myself, and Ana Sokolovic) at last for an enthusiastic and good-sized audience include the local supporters of Cantus Ensemble, the Canadian Ambassador to Croatia who brought many others to the performance, a group of Dom’s now all grown-up high school friends, and quite a few others). Thanks to Robyn Driedger Klassen for fantastic performances of Schafer and my Bee Studies, written with poet and TPE Board Member Renée Sarojini Saklikar. Also, Rivka’s performances were inspiring. The ensemble rose to the occasion and sounded top-notch throughout.
We had a very enjoyable reception after in the lobby of the Lisinski Hall that was sponsored by the Canadian embassy. I would be remiss also if I didn’t thank Berislav Šipuš and Nina Ćalopek, Artistic Director and General Manager respectively of Cantus Ensemble for all their efforts to make this concert a very special opening of our 2023 tour.
Tuesday was a slow but interesting day as we spent six hours travelling by bus to Belgrade in Serbia. My next blogpost will report on our two concerts we will do while here.
From my hotel room in Belgrade before dress rehearsal,
Turning Point Ensemble
Photo credit to Vedran Metelko.
Q&A with Owen Underhill
Read the below Q&A with Owen Underhill learn more about how Turning Point Ensemble’s European Tour came to be, our collaboration with Cantus Ensemble of Croatia and our upcoming concert in Zagreb on May 15 at the Lisinski Concert Hall.
Turning Point Ensemble was founded in the early 2000s. Can you recall the beginnings, motives, reasons, and needs for establishing the ensemble?
Turning Point Ensemble was formed by its musician members in 2002, just over 20 years ago. The goal was to create a large chamber group in-between orchestra and small chamber that would play masterworks of the early 20th century through to new music, thus giving the opportunity for the founding musicians to play repertoire that they always wished to play, but is not part of their regular music-making with other ensembles. We have striven to create connections between music of earlier periods and the present day in our concerts and productions. Our first work on our first concert was Anton Webern’s extraordinary arrangement of the Bach Ricercar in 6 parts from The Musical Offering.
The collaboration between Cantus and Turning Point Ensemble has been ongoing for several years now. How did it start?
There were several connections and contacts between Zagreb and Vancouver that facilitated the beginning of our collaboration. This included the past connection between our Board President Dubravko Pajalic and Berislav Šipuš dating back to Dubravko’s years in his home town Zagreb, and the performance of Turning Point Ensemble in the 2017 World New Music Days Festival in Vancouver where we performed a work of Croatian composer Sanda Majureč. We met during that festival, and from there we began discussions about a long-term relationship which led to a guest conductor performance of myself in Zagreb with Cantus Ensemble in September 2019, a guest conductor performance of Berislav Šipuš in Vancouver with Turning Point Ensemble in April 2022, the present Turning Point Ensemble concert in Zagreb, and the upcoming performance of Cantus Ensemble in Vancouver in the fall of 2024.
What did the first encounter between the ensembles look like? Are there a lot of similarities between the two groups?
The concert in September 2019 was a fantastic experience. In addition to my role as guest conductor of the concert, our former Turning Point Ensemble cellist, Ariel Barnes, came from Germany to perform as soloist in my Cello Concerto. Other composers represented from the West Coast of Canada were Dorothy Chang, John Oliver, and Edward Top. I think this first concert gave an opportunity for the Croatian audience to hear an ambitious and lively concert of Canadian music firsthand, as well as for the musicians of the Cantus Ensemble to establish a connection directly with musicians, and composers from Vancouver connected with Turning Point Ensemble. From this experience, it was clear to me that both Cantus and Turning Point Ensemble are well-matched ensembles that play critical roles in building a distinctive culture in their respective cities and also through international connections.
Your collaboration is about more than just exchanging ensembles and guest performances, it’s also about the synergy that results from creating music with another ensemble. What experiences are created this way?
I think these detailed and meaningful collaborations create connections that are very profound. Playing each others music is personal; it gets beneath the superficiality of normal touring or concertizing. It gets at the meaning of the making of art in our respective countries and how the music resonates above and beyond the local experience. It also reveals the character of the music and cultural aesthetics present in our respective homes to not only the musicians involved, but to a wider audience in both countries. We have tried to build on this through follow-up stages in our collaboration including commissions of emerging composers that we are performing in our touring concerts.
Can you comment on the Croatian music you have come into contact with during this collaboration? Which composers and works have left an impression?
That is a very interesting question that I have been thinking about. I have found that there are some cultural similarities that are surprising and interesting. Although music composed in Croatia and Canada is very diverse, I do think that one senses in that music some distinct characteristics and cultural attributes. One is that contemporary music cultures in both Croatia and Canada are I think vibrant and healthy, and in my opinion, not as widely known as they deserve to be internationally due to the relatively smaller populations of both countries.
The concert of Croatian music that Maestro Šipuš conducted with Turning Point Ensemble was firstly a magnificent program, and secondly, it traced musical developments and relationships between the music of Stankho Horvat, Srdan Dedič, Marko Ruždak, Krešimir Seletkovič, and Berislav Šipuš. I have heard in this concert and in other Croatian music I have come to know that there is an originality, a combination of playfulness and experimentation, a lively and complex relationship with folk musics and language, and an unpretentious and powerful expression. I am not surprised that this concert in Vancouver was so well received.
During its European tour, TPE will be premiering a new piece by Helena Skljarov, an up and coming Croatian composer. Can you tell us more about this piece?
We are delighted to present the premiere of Helena Skljarov’s The Red-Haired Man. From the beginning, the work is full of surprises, with a bold theatricality, a fascinating combination of sounds that transcends instrumental sound with the use of vocal sounds, and also the unworldly presence of poetry, specifically the poem Red-Haired Man from the Russian poet Daniil Kharms. Audiences in Zagreb will not want to miss this piece!
What are the trends, composers’ interests, directions, etc., in the contemporary classical music scene in Canada?
Canada is a large country with different ecologies of music practice from the west coast to the major urban centers of Toronto and Montreal. I believe our concert will give an interesting representation including Canada’s arguably most internationally influential composer, writer and educator Murray Schafer; a premiere of a new work by Canadian composer Michael Pepa who has worked off and on in Croatia for several decades; one of Canada’s most prominent mid-generation composers Ana Sokolovič (originally from Belgrade and a Montreal resident for the last three decades); and also works from myself and my Vancouver colleague Rita Ueda. Turning Point Ensemble will be joined on the program by soprano Robyn Driedger Klassen and the extraordinary viola soloist Rivka Golani. I believe this program will show the inventive spirit and richness present in Canadian music. All the composers presented have had ongoing relationships with Turning Point Ensemble.
After many years of collaboration, has the Croatian-Canadian collaboration closed, or are there any further plans?
The cycle has not yet closed because we are building now for the visit of Cantus Ensemble to our Turning Point Ensemble series in the fall of 2024. There is much planning already underway by Maestro Šipuš for this concert which will also include a new commission written for Cantus Ensemble by the young Vancouver composer Ramsey Sadaka.
Finally, we would remiss not to take the opportunity to ask you about your other current projects and plans. Please tell us what you are working on at the moment.
I am working on a few larger projects – one is a second album of my music for string quartet with the Bozzini Quartet from Montreal, another is a larger song cycle called Bee Studies with poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar, of which I will present three songs in the upcoming concert; and a third is a series of unaccompanied choral pieces, the Gaudi Madrigals based on pronouncements of the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi.
Interview with Owen Underhill
Read below to learn more about our Artistic Director’s work and experience, his dreams for the ensemble and why In the Distance is such an important concert for Turning Point Ensemble.
You co-founded Turning Point Ensemble almost 20 years ago, what inspired you to embark on such an adventure?
I was approached by my colleague Jeremy Berkman about the idea of forming an ensemble that would play my music, as well as extraordinary repertoire from the early twentieth century. After taking a break from my years at Vancouver New Music, I was delighted to join Jeremy and other founding musicians in this ambitious project with the understanding that it would be not just for my music, but inclusive of all kinds of Canadian and international composers as well.
Had you conducted a large ensemble like TPE before? Why did you decide to form a large ensemble instead of a smaller chamber group?
Yes, I had conducted orchestral concerts of contemporary music with groups such as the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra, Vancouver Symphony, National Art Centre Orchestra as well as years of conducting ensemble concerts with Vancouver New Music. The unique thing about a large ensemble of approximately 15 players like Turning Point Ensemble is that it fits in between medium chamber and orchestra. There is both the transparency and intimacy of chamber music as well as the full range of orchestral timbres in this size of ensemble.
You are a faculty member in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, could you tell us a bit about how teaching young composer has influenced you as a musician?
My years of teaching composers have always brought fresh energy and ideas into my musical life. I try to teach each student differently in order to help each composer find their own creative voice. I should also say that the School for the Contemporary Arts is a truly interdisciplinary environment with dance, film, theatre, visual art and critical studies in addition to music. As a result, I have had the chance to collaborate with amazing colleagues from different disciplines throughout my career, as well as teach students working in different artforms. As a composer who has often been influenced by the visual arts and various other influences outside of music, this transdisciplinary environment has been a rich source of inspiration.
What are the challenges and joys of conducting a large ensemble like TPE? Have you written any pieces for the group?
The players in the ensemble are among the best in Vancouver and are fully committed to achieving top performances of difficult repertoire. This is a treat for me and has certainly raised the quality of my work as a conductor. We work as a chamber music ensemble in a non-hierarchical way, so we are always learning together and accountable to each other.
I have written several pieces for Turning Point Ensemble including The Widening Gyre for our very first concert in January 2003, and more recently the Cello Concerto for Ariel Barnes and the ensemble which we recorded on Orlando records.
If you could make all your TPE wishes come true, what would you want the ensemble to achieve in the next coming years?
Wow, what a question! I would love us to be able to expand our funding base a bit so that we have a somewhat larger season and have the ability to do more touring and recording.
And now thinking realistically, what are the future projects that TPE has in the works that you are most excited about?
I am excited about a concert we are planning for this fall that will include music by composers displaced from their home countries due to violence, discrimination or other factors. I also am very motivated by large interdisciplinary projects.
At the moment I am working with Tajik-Canadian composer Farangis Nurulla-Khoja on an opera she is composing based on The Conference of the Birds, a 13-century poem by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed anything about how the conductor relates to the musicians on stage?
Musicians have been spaced out more due to social distancing, and we have worked and performed with masks except for the wind players. We have been all working a bit harder to communicate through our masks in rehearsal, and the spacing has been a bit different but overall, I would say we were very relieved to get back together now for concerts after a period of about a year where we only did small projects such as our 1 + 1 + 1… a film series.
If you could choose any composer (living or dead) for TPE to premiere a piece for, who would it be?
That is a hard question for me, because I have always tried to approach every piece as unique and significant. I especially like doing premieres and have also had some special experiences with some superb composers including Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli, Rudolf Komorous, James MacMillan, Steve Reich, Toru Takemitsu, and Judith Weir.
Tell us about In the Distance, this concert will be one of the first times that Turning Point Ensemble will be conducted by someone else, how does this make you feel? What are you most looking forward to about this opportunity?
In the Distance is a fantastic opportunity for Vancouver audiences to hear the best of Croatian new music conducted by composer/conductor Berislav Šipuš. This is part of a wonderful cultural exchange we are doing with the Cantus Ensemble in Zagreb which has already included me conducting a concert of Canadian music (all of written for Turning Point Ensemble) with their musicians in Zagreb back in September 2019. We will in 2023/24 also have tours of Cantus Ensemble to Vancouver and Turning Point Ensemble to Croatia.
There have been a couple cases where other conductors have worked with Turning Point Ensemble, but generally as a member of the ensemble, I have had the pleasure of being the conductor. I am looking forward to seeing our musicians bring alive this music with a conductor who knows each piece intimately. It will be a true cross-cultural experience for all including the audience.
Finally, I feel that there are interesting similarities between the cultures of Canada and Croatia. Both countries have distinctive aesthetics and several outstanding composers that blend local influences with international contemporary trends, and in my opinion, both cultures deserve more international recognition for the quality and individuality of their work.
To learn more and get tickets for In the Distance, click here.
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Nova Pon: Symphonies of Mother and Child
We spoke to Nova Pon about her newest composition which will be premiered on February 27 at the Chan Centre as part of Turning Point Ensemble’s Inhale/Exhale concert.
You have a degree from the University of Calgary and UBC, could you tell us a bit about how these two cities have influenced and inspired your music?
Nova: Musicians and ensembles in each city have inspired me to write for them while I lived there. The two areas are naturally very different, and I was around them at quite different points in my life, and both mean a lot to me.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed anything in your composing process? How are you faring in these weird times?
Nova: Mostly I have been less affected practically than many, as I was already living somewhat remotely and composing somewhat slowly. But the whole situation weighs on the mind and spirit, thinking of all the damage done and how hard it will be to heal.
Tell us about Symphonies of Mother and Child, the piece that will premiered as part of our upcoming concert at the Chan Centre.
Nova: It’s my biggest work yet. It’s very personal, but it’s inspired by themes like love and loss, time and transience, attachment and power that are universal, so I hope it really reaches people. When I was first inspired I was in a very heightened state of dwelling on these things, more than ever before in my life.
What are the challenges and joys of composing for a large ensemble, like TPE? Have you written for this musical group before?
Nova: I’ve written for large chamber ensemble and orchestra before, but this is my first work for TPE. It’s got all the joys and challenges of a chamber ensemble plus an orchestra! It’s got a full spectrum of orchestral color and potential for big togetherness, but it also really suits treating each individual as a soloist and having intimate chamber music conversations. It has been intense to try to embrace it all.
How does it feel to premiere a new work? What about this opportunity are you most excited about?
Nova: Each work lives a long time within your own life, like one of your children. Your relationship with it is the whole process as you go along. But the premiere is a special point in that process, like meeting someone you know for the first time in person. I’ve had such a long involved relationship with this piece that I don’t think I’ve really processed yet that the premiere is coming up!
What have you been listening to lately?
Nova: My kid has lately been asking for Abigail Washburn and Einojuhani Rautavaara and that has been great.
Are there any upcoming performances (Turning Point Ensemble or otherwise) that you are looking forward to?
Nova: All of the TPE performances are always so fascinating. But what I’m most looking forward to is an end to the pandemic situation and what it has done to our performing arts, and to everything else.
We spoke to composer Farangis Nurulla-Khoja and pianist Jane Hayes about their upcoming collaboration taking place January 28 & 29, as part of Turning Point Ensemble’s Solo Flare concert. Jane will premiere Farangis’ composition for solo piano, Les envolées.
Tell us about working together. Are there specific qualities that informed your choices?
FN-K: I had a fantastic time working with Jane. She is not only a performer, she is a musician, a composer, an interpreter, therefore I was happy to compose a solo piano work for her.
I think the piece, Les envolées, represents Jane’s ability to be able to embrace different aspects of life. Some time ago before starting composing, we had an exciting conversation about from the most profound to the banal, at the same time… it helped me to discover her not only as an artist, but also as a thinker and a person. She told me that during the pandemic, she performed often Piazzolla, Scriabin – it motivated me to approach the piano both virtuosically as well as look at it as a force of sonic exploration.
I also think Jane’s approach to piano produces a unique way which gives a composer the innovative ideas to work with. She explores the dynamics, the pedal, creating a resonance, all these nuances were articulated in this composition.
I am pleased to dedicate this work to her!
JH: This was easy! TPE had worked with Farangis several times, and I found her music spoke to me – especially Le jour ma nuit about motherhood, and Ni d’ici ni d’ailleurs about displaced persons.
Then we performed and recorded her concerted work “Blind” and we had a chance to talk about her work, her experimentation with sound. Her passion and exploration of sound possibilities on the piano appealed to my own sensibilities and sources of inspiration.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed anything about your process? How are you both doing during these peculiar times?
FN-K: In the piece, I versed in the melody of my grand father, a composer, Ziyodullo Shahidi. Since the piece was composed mostly during the pandemic, it was a nostalgic period not being able to visit my country of origin.
JH: I have felt so blessed during these COVID times. Pianists tend to be solitary musicians given the demands of solo repertoire and often the complexity of our parts so we are kind of used to being alone!
Combined with my resignation from my “day job” at Kwantlen, I suddenly had time to return to solo playing and relived the joy of being a student – time to practice, time to think, time to research. Live concerts were quickly replaced with video recordings and other multi-media projects that I would not have had time to do.
Is there anything you’d like audiences to knowabout this piece?
JH: This piece has all the elements of contemporary keyboard music that I relate easily to – the opening page sets the scene for the blending of old and new by featuring raw sound – Farangis’ past and present is heard immediately on the 2nd page with melodic fragments from her grandfather merged with Farangis’ own brand of dissonance and virtuosity. Coming from improvisation, I am free to become one with the notes, making the rhythmic shape my own, allowing the emotional moment and the venue to play a vital role in the timing between sections.
Tell us about some of the challenges and joys of composing a solo piece.
FN-K: I think this piece became like a storytelling with its contradictions, jumps, and wonders – in fact it is a lively story, because the atmosphere of the piece is inspired of the personality of Jane, every conversation we had was joyful, surprising, intriguing.
How does it feel to premiere a new, solo work?
JH: It’s both exciting and nerve-wracking! Exciting because you are bringing something to life that no one else will have heard until that very public moment of performance. Nerve-wracking – because you want to do the work justice, give it the best possible first hearing.
The work is being filmed later this month for release as part of 1+1+1… a film series. How are you faring with the visual aspects of filming the music?
JH: The title will probably lead us to a vision – a flight of artistic fancy!
FN-K: It is still in process – but Jane and I discussed it and we would like to work with the light, the sound (inside and outside of piano), to try to make an impression of a flying piano… well, we’ll see…
Are there any upcoming performances that you’re looking forward to?
JN: Using stethoscopes in the next TPE concert while revisiting Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto – how’s that for extremes?
Edward Top’s Magic will be performed as part of VancouverMagic, November 21 at the Orpheum Annex. We spoke to the composer about the piece, his reputation in the Dutch press, and integrating children into his music.
You are a relatively recent arrival to Vancouver. What brought you here, and what inspires you to stay?
Moving to the great Pacific Northwest in Canada was considered an exciting adventure for me, and also Vancouver is my wife’s hometown. We have been in Vancouver for over a decade already, and I still find exciting pockets of music creation. I loved my previous job as Composer-in-Residence with the Vancouver Symphony during my first years here, and continue to be excited about symphonic music as a teacher of composition, orchestration and violin at the Vancouver Academy of Music. I recently discovered that Vancouver has a group of high-level musicians, specializing in Chinese instruments. With my Dutch roots, and having previously lived in East Asia, I am now working with both Western and Chinese musicians to find new ways of expression. This can only happen in Vancouver!
Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed anything in your composing process? How are you faring in these weird times?
The pandemic did not affect my personal composition process because as a composer I always work in isolation. However, the uncertainty of whether my work would ever be performed again had a profound and ominous impact. Performances of live music were on hold, which made my colleagues and I increasingly nervous about an already precarious profession. Ironically, since blood is thicker than water, this insecurity motivated me to write a large orchestral work just because I felt I had to to prevent “compositional-atrophy”!
The Dutch press called you “horror composer Edward Top”. What did you do to earn that designation? Should audiences brace for terror?
This moniker was designated 25 years ago, after the performance of my piece “The Overwhelming Blankness of the Ultimate Meaninglessness of Tragedy” for chamber orchestra where a soprano ran screaming down the concert hall, and an actor narrated a macabre text. At first, I was apprehensive of being pigeon-holed but it is just a bit of fun. For the upcoming concert of Magic with the Turning Point Ensemble and an ensemble of child violinists, this piece will be quite angelic!
There are intriguing photos on your site with a double-necked Gibson SG. Tell us a little bit about the piece that used that unusual instrument most often associated with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
Three years ago, during Vancouver Pro Musica’s Sonic Boom Festival, I performed my composition “Three Studies for Decaoctochordon”, an instrument name that I made up. It creates very interesting clouds of sound, with its 18 differently-tuned strings on the double-neck guitar. The twelve-string section is tuned to all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale, and the other neck is a quarter-tone sharp. It is an instrument for the outlandish! Recently I have been re-tuning the double neck for a more Jimmy Page-like approach in my progressive-rock band called Square.
Magic is written to incorporate child violinists. Did your work at Vancouver Academy suggest this approach?
Yes! I have taught violin to young musicians for 30 years now. In a previous piece, “Pots ’n Pans Falling”, I asked one of my students (7 years old) to record his violin parts. The sound was pure and joyful. Magic is a logical progression from there, incorporating eight young performers… to play live! Two years ago, Owen Underhill conducted the premiere of Magic with the Cantus Ansambl in Zagreb whereby pre-recorded samples were used, similar to Pots ’n Pans, but with three players. Those three players are now a part of the group of eight live players, which includes my 10-year old son, Elliott. I suppose this is a re-occurring theme of mine, multiplying guitar necks and now children!
What about this performance are you most excited about?
Having young violinists performing live is very exciting because of the unique and tangible sound quality, the high stakes of coordinating many moving parts, and giving the kids a chance to work with professionals. It was Owen’s suggestion to try live performers rather than pre-recorded samples like we did in Zagreb. There is no equivalent in art music to movements like Cobra in the visual arts: Cobra “wanted to start again as a child” in the words of painter Karel Appel. The expression of feelings here is instinctive with childlike simplicity. The word magic raises a childlike curiosity, awe, and perhaps a little fear. Although this arrangement of children on stage may appear sentimental, hopefully it will reveal a deeper layer of psychological meaning.
What have you been listening to lately?
Thanks for asking! Bartok and Ravel String Quartets; Webern Three Songs; Alfredo Santa Ana’s “Ye elves” in Music on Main’s Modulus Festival last week; my students Henry From’s and Francis Sadleir’s works; Cardiacs “The Seaside” (one of my all-time favourite albums!); the prog/art rock compilation album “Rock From the Alley #2” with 19 local progressive rock bands, including my own band Square.
Are there any upcoming performances (Turning Point Ensemble or otherwise) that you are looking forward to?
We recently filmed scenes for one of our recent 1+1+1… films at Pyatt Hall in Vancouver. “Mobile” features new music by Peggy Lee for violinist Marc Destrube. Here are some behind the scenes photos.
Loons 1+1+1… shoot
Some behind the scenes photos with from our 1+1+1… film shoot of the piece Loons filmed in July at Pitt Lake. This piece features Brenda Fedoruk on flute and soprano Robyn Klassen.
Q & A with Owen Underhill
Our colleagues at the Chan Centre recently interviewed Turning Point Ensemble Artistic Director and Conductor, Owen Underhill talk about what it’s been like to get the ensemble back together onstage for the first time in a year, and the exciting and innovative music that is a part of our TPE Interactive digital concert.
Here is that Q & A:
Chan Centre: After a year of no live concerts and video projects with solo ensemble members, what was it like to get the larger group of Turning Point Ensemble musicians back together on one stage for this recording?
Owen Underhill: It was a relief to get the whole ensemble together again and make music together. Even though we have been pursuing quite interesting solo film projects, that does not take the place of the chamber music collaboration that is at the heart of Turning Point Ensemble. It had actually been over a year of not playing together as an ensemble so we all appreciated the opportunity to sink our teeth into a large-scale project. Of course, it was necessary to follow all of the safety protocols including social distancing on stage, and wearing of masks for all except wind players. It is was a treat therefore to have the opportunity to space out in the Chan Shun Concert Hall, and have all the outstanding technical support there to realize such a complex project.
CC: The program features works by two very cutting-edge composers David Eagle and Mauricio Pauly. As the artistic director as well as conductor, what was it that drew you to the works of these composers?
OU: The program was designed to demonstrate innovative approaches of mixing electronic and computer processing with a large ensemble. This is still something that is not often tried due to the difficulty of capturing the sound of many instruments in an interactive and hybrid setup. Both David Eagle and Mauricio Pauly are among the few in this part of the world that are attempting this kind of work. David is from Calgary and is now living in Victoria. We had enjoyed performing his Two Forms of Intuition before, and were in discussions about recording some of his works for an audio CD he will be releasing. Mauricio, originally from Costa Rica, and now in Vancouver since 2017, takes a different approach of integration where the players are often more directly involved in the processing and manipulation of their own sound. I felt the two approaches would be a nice mix in our TPE Interactive presentation.
CC: Both of the works from David Eagle, Two Forms of Intuition (2011) and Unremembered Tongues/ʌnɹɪmembəɹd tʌŋz (2013), have interactive computer elements to them. Can you describe how these elements fit in and what audiences can look forward to with these works?
OU: David Eagle in his two works performs a rather magical performance role. From the centre of the hall, he controls through hand and arm movements (you will see this in the recording) various processing effects which result in the instrumental sounds being spatialized and moved in an effectively three dimensional space. In addition to the spatialization, there are many other effects that David is controlling including looping and modulation. Thanks to the excellent work of the audio engineer James Perrella, you can capture this quite well in the recording. Headphones are recommended. The Unremembered Tongues/ʌnɹɪmembəɹd tʌŋz piece adds another whole dimension through the inclusion of languages in danger of extinction. As sung, whispered and vocalized by the outstanding soprano Robyn Driedger Klassen, and then further magnified and transformed by the composer, the sonic power and character of these languages and the tragic potential loss of cultural experience is palpable.
“The program was designed to demonstrate innovative approaches of mixing electronic and computer processing with a large ensemble… David Eagle and Mauricio Pauly are among the few in this part of the world that are attempting this kind of work.” Owen Underhill
CC: Mauricio Pauly’s new work We en flor de chiflón is a brand new commission written for the Turning Point Ensemble. What was the process of working with him on this new work, and how does this complement the other work of his on the program, Clinamen clinamen clinamen?
OU: Mauricio was very interested in working and collaborating directly with each performer. That collaboration went beyond the extended performance techniques into the world of electronic manipulation. For example, our harpist Janelle Nadeau is extending her tones through an extra pedal (like an electric guitarist) that she controls, and our trumpeter Marcus Goddard is operating his own interface and midi controller. Mauricio also worked extensively with our percussionist Jonathan Bernard who, as audience members will see, is busy spinning crotales (high disc-shaped bells) and other objects on his bass drum. Finally, it should be mentioned that Mauricio performs a wizard-like role in his own piece, generating various electronic tracks (including a male orator which has a large role in the piece), and manipulating live the sound of the players which keeps reappearing in new contexts. The final ‘surprise’ in our working together with Mauricio is that he continued to build his work in post-production adding many other layers particularly in the end section of the piece.
As for Clinamen, clinamen, clinamen – this was an entirely acoustic performance for clarinet and string quartet of an earlier work. What was the most interesting for me is that this piece, without any additional electronics or effects, had a kind of hybrid and transcendent character that seemed very much in keeping with the new commission.
CC: What has it been like for the ensemble, performing without live audiences?
OU: Yes, this has been very different. In live performance, these pieces would have involved octophonic surround-sound speakers as well as the kind of in-person interaction we cherish with our audience. It is, as in a recording session, somewhat anticlimactic to pack everything up and go home after take 27, but we and the audio/video crew have worked hard to allow the viewer to get right inside these works and close up to the performers. Please also do listen to the interviews with the composers that can be viewed at the end of the four works.
One final point: You will have access to TPE Interactive for a full year, so that will allow you to listen again and get to know the music more intimately than one can on a single hearing. Tickets are available here and please feel to write us on our contact us page with your impressions!
TPE Interactive Recording
Turning Point Ensemble was thrilled at long last to be rehearsing together and recording works by David Eagle and Mauricio Pauly in the Chan Centre Concert Hall between April 14th and 20th. Stay tuned for the video release of TPE Interactive which includes music that blends fascinating combinations of acoustic ensemble, interactive technologies and electronics. In addition to our full band, and the composers performing in their own works, we were joined by soprano Robyn Driedger Klassen in Eagle’s Unremembered Tongues, a piece that utilizes many forgotten and endangered languages. Mauricio Pauly composed a new mixed sextet for us (We en flor de chiflón) that included our harpist Janelle Nadeau operating her own sustain pedal, and trumpeter Marcus Goddard looping and adjusting his own sounds in real time in collaboration with the wizard-like electronic manipulations and live processing of the composer.
Thank you for your continued support of the artistic activities of Turning Point Ensemble during the pandemic. We look forward to continuing to share our work with you in new ways!
TPE Interactive Recording Photos
On April 19 and 20, 2021 we recorded two pieces by David Eagle and two pieces by Mauricio Pauly at the Chan Centre for our TPE Interactive online concert. This concert will be available to watch starting on Friday, June 11. Tickets are available by clicking on the Buy Tickets link.
Here are some behind the scenes photos from the recording:
Conjuring the Future
The University of British Columbia School of Music recently wrote an article about our first 1+1+1… film Synapses in their blog.
Message from Owen Underhill who attended the Western Canadian Music Awards Breakout West in Whitehorse, Yukon.
I left a rainy Vancouver yesterday in order to fly up to the Western Canadian Music Awards Breakout West in Whitehorse, Yukon. As we flew further north, the clouds went away and we arrived in a very clear and sunny Whitehorse. I am proud to attend the WCMAs representing Turning Point Ensemble nominated in the Classical Artist/Ensemble category for our Curio Box CD, as well as my own personal nomination as Classical Composer for my Cello Concerto played brilliantly by Ariel Barnes and Turning Point Ensemble on the same CD. Yesterday evening we all gathered in a large circle in the setting sun alongside the Yukon River outside the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre for a ceremonial first nations welcome and cleansing fire. Following the outside gathering we all went inside for the Award Ceremony. Other attendees from Vancouver included Steven Bélanger who is the Executive Director and a singer in the Vancouver Chamber Choir. They were also nominated in the Classical Ensemble category. My congratulations to all the winners including the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra as Classical Artist/Ensemble of the year and Carmen Braden from Yellowknife as the Classical Composer of the year. I enjoyed Arctic Char, Carmelized Bacon and other local delectables after the ceremony as well as listening to one of our former SFU students Sarah MacDougall from the Yukon who was nominated as Pop Artist of the Year. Her group fresh from a European tour performed last night. I am looking forward to attending other events over the weekend as well as spending time walking along the river.
Sept 24, 2019
Yesterday was a very exciting and dramatic day with a terrific concert and also unusual weather events!
Thank you to the amazing Ariel Barnes for a superb performance of my Cello Concerto, and there were very strong and committed performances by Cantus Ensemble of all the pieces by Dorothy Chang, Edward Top (premiere!) and John Oliver. One audience member from Norway came up after and said it was the best concert of contemporary music he had ever experienced.
All four pieces were written for Turning Point Ensemble so it did feel like a close connection between the two ensembles has now begun. We look forward to Berislav Sipuš joining us in Vancouver in May 2020 (don’t forget to get your subscriptions to the TPE Season!), and many musicians were saying see you in Vancouver in two years when we will host Cantus Ensemble.
Thanks to Dubravko for the before and during concert interviews.
As for the weather, there was an extremely heavy rain in the late afternoon causing flash flooding, and also there was a fire at an old train station not far from the Lauba performance space.
Although that did prevent the TV crew from arriving and some audience members that already had tickets did not make it, there was still an extremely appreciative audience.
It was a good break to have one last day in Zagreb today after six straight days of intense music making, and Dubravko and I visited the Naive Art Museum and the Museum of Broken Relationships. That ends the Zagreb Blog, and see you all before long in Vancouver.
Artistic Director, Turning Point Ensemble
Turning Point Ensemble Artistic Director, Owen Underhill is currently in Croatia rehearsing with the Cantus Ensemble for an incredible concert to be held on September 23 of BC Composers including Dorothy Chang, John Oliver, Edward Top and Owen Underhill’s own cello concerto to be performed by Ariel Yosef Zev Barnes. This is the first concert of an exchange project we are working on with the Cantus Ensemble. On May 16/17, 2020, their conductor Berislav Sipus will join TPE in a concert of new Croatian compositions. Here is Owen’s first blog post with news from the road!
Hello from Zagreb! I have been here with our President Dubravko Pajalic for one week rehearsing and preparing for a concert of BC composers entitled ‘Maple Syrup’ which will take place tomorrow (Monday) at a hall called Lauba. Lauba is a former horse stable that has been converted into a very large artspace with exhibition area in one half and the concert hall in the other. It has brick walls and a very high ceiling – very hip and with a good acoustic.
I am delighted to be joined by cellist Ariel Barnes (just on his way on the train from Nürnberg) to play my Cello Concerto, and to also play Three Windows by Dorothy Chang, Five-ring Concerto by John Oliver and a premiere of Magic by Edward Top. All these works have been commissioned and premiered by Turning Point Ensemble.
It is also exciting to have worked this last week with the excellent musicians of Cantus Ensemble with whom we are embarking on a three-year exchange project which will include their artistic director Berislav Šipuš coming to conduct Turning Point Ensemble in May 2020, and also tours of both groups in the next two years.