The world of classical music is so often consumed with the old, that it's easy to forget how exciting the new in music can be.
That's why the Toronto Symphony's New Creations Festival has been fun to attend this year – not everything has worked musically, but every piece makes you listen to it with different attention, as though you were hearing it for the first time. Because, of course, you are.
Interestingly, on Thursday, the new and the old slipped into each other's shoes in unexpected ways. The era of high modernism in classical music, the years at the beginning of the twentieth century when things really were new, when you heard things in the concert hall by a Schoenberg or a Stravinsky that literally had never been heard before, are by and large, over. Today, it's what gets combined with what that makes things new, and the struggle in composition is achieving originality in how things are organized, how compositions are structured.
And perhaps the most successful of the three compositions on Thursday's program in this regard was Krystof Marayka's hour-long cantata that more or less told the history of man's development of music itself: Vabeni: Ritual of Prehistoric Fossils of Man. The Czech-born composer has long been interested in world musics and in prehistoric art, and these two springs of inspiration gave rise to this sprawling piece, scored for choir and orchestra. And although I said that there was nothing new in music any more, the musical language that Marayka invented for the combined Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers was pretty close to it. These fine choristers, more at home with the work of Bach and Mozart, were forced to play kazoos, stamp on the floor, sing a vocalise of Marayka's invention, howl, whisper, all in recreating an aural image of what prehistoric music might have sounded like. All these effects might have been primitivism for its own sake, and thus tedious in the end, but eventually Vabeni grew on this listener because of the intense concentration with which conductor Peter Oundjian, his orchestra and combined choirs approached the work. A committed performance can always save the musical day (as a less than committed performance can spoil one) and Vabeni got a spirited performance Thursday night. As well, part of the attraction of the piece was its form – you could follow the progress of its six parts, as a growing sophistication in musical language took over the primitive nature of its early moments.
The other two works on Thursday's program received equally spirited performances, but that formal interest was lacking in them both. Having listened to them, one was never quite sure why either piece had been composed in the first place. Owen Pallett's Violin Concerto, co-commissioned by the TSO, was inspired by the Bach playing of its soloist, Pekka Kuusisto, and was written in something of a Baroque language, and in the form of a Baroque sonata, or so the composer has written. But actually, the Baroque-iness of the work slipped in and out of focus – more often it sounded like the neoclassical work of mid-century Stravinsky imitating contemporaries of Mozart. In itself, this would have made no difference at all, but the Concerto suffered, I thought, from a corresponding lack of purpose, a lack of clarity as to what its point was. Kuusisto played his mainly arpeggiated part with great sensitivity and beauty, but he couldn't create an emotional centre that wasn't there.
And Tod Machover's Sparkler, a quasi-overture which began the concert, also looked to the past – using musical quotes from Beethoven (just audible), and the Beatles (mainly not, despite the composer's assurances that up to 45 Beatles tunes were used in the piece) to give the piece some of its texture. But, lacking a clear organization, those quotes were to little effect.
Not everything works at a concert of new music – unlike the standard repertoire, one hasn't had the refining apparatus of centuries of listening to separate out the choicest material. But the very unpredictability of the new, on one level, is what makes it attractive. It's an experience that classical music once enjoyed as much as any other form of music – it's good to have it back, if just for a few evenings.