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Tanya Tagaq perform Qiksaaktuq (Grief) at the TSO’s New Creations Festival.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra
New Creations 1
Roy Thomson Hall

You didn't actually have to hear a note to understand why the Toronto Symphony's New Creations Festival, which kicked off Saturday night, is so important to the symphony and to the city. The usually restrained Roy Thomson Hall was a different place – more spontaneous, more relaxed, more open to what was in store. You could feel it in the lobbies, hear it in the laughter, see it on new faces in the hall. Gone was that slightly oppressive atmosphere that has made "serious" music so "important" for the past 2 1/2 centuries. Not that the Saturday New Creations Festival concert wasn't serious or important. It was both – more so than many more traditional symphony concerts. But it was also more human, more alive.

The two major works on the program couldn't have been more different, testament to the wide range of music that opens to view when the new is allowed into the field of vision. Jorg Widmann's Trauermarsch – Funeral March – is a semi-piano concerto that adheres to many of the traditional aspects of modern European classical music, full of interplay between soloist and orchestra that harks back to the classical era of Mozart and Beethoven, and stuffed with the dissonant textures that "new" music has exhibited for the last century. Tanya Tagaq, Christine Duncan and Jean Martin, on the other hand, created an extraordinary soundscape, founded on the expressive range of Tagaq's voice, that corralled Indigenous vocal techniques, the modern orchestra and their intersection to expose the plight of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Qiksaaktuq – "Grief." But both works demonstrated, in their power, what happens to the musical spirit when it is freed from convention and expectations. It flourishes, it spreads its gorgeous wings, it soars.

Widmann's Funeral March was perhaps the surprise of the evening (unless you had never heard Tanya Tagaq perform before). What might have been an austere exploration of modern music became instead a highly moving, beautifully structured exploration of the same sort of grief, actually, that informs Qiksaaktuq. With the pianist leading the expressive shape of the work, now performing tiny, simple gestures, at other times emotionally exploding all over the keyboard, Funeral March began from the perspective of the mourners, then seemed to switch to a view of the proceedings from the point of view of the deceased, then explored the life that the two had shared together. It was Mahlerian in spots, at other times nostalgic, angry, resigned – a contemporary example of the power of pure music. Pianist Yefim Bronfman, for whom it was written, put on a remarkable display of virtuosic excellence at the keyboard, and Peter Oundjian provided acute and sympathetic accompaniment for him.

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It is best to understand Tagaq not as an Indigenous artist, but as a modern creator of remarkable soundscapes, which include the guttural sounds of traditional Inuit throat-singing among many other sonic wonders. Tagaq is one of the all-time great Canadian performing and creative artists for me, right up there with Glenn Gould and Claude Vivier in my personal pantheon. And her performance in Qiksaaktug, which she improvises, is stunning. What we always hear from Tanya Tagaq is a complete world in sound, from the most faithful representation of the natural world, from the cracking of Arctic ice and the shuddering of a Canadian wind, to the sound of the country's aviary, to the most human sounds – weeping, howling, whispering, conversation, everything. She is a complete artist, as few others are.

However, in this work, I felt she was less well-served by the orchestral score behind her than she might have been. That score, assembled by Jean Martin from loops and other material Tagaq has used before, and orchestrated by Christopher Mayo, seemed somewhat at odds with her performance. Last year, Tagaq appeared in Toronto with the Kronos Quartet in another combination of Western instruments and her unique vocal world, and it was far more integrated, more complete. One might have exploited the cultural dissonance between a Western orchestra and an Indigenous woman to greater advantage on Saturday had one been willing to do so. That bass drum that boomed often throughout Qiksaaktuq was at the same time a representation of an ancient native instrument and a symbol of precisely the oppression that silenced that very instrument. Working through that cultural contradiction in sound might have produced some very interesting results.

But none of these observations diminishes the power of all the works on the program, including Jordan Pal's Iris and Andrew Staniland's two-minute Reflections on O Canada After Truth and Reconciliation. Because the greatest liberation in new music is in the field of judgment. The classics are just that – works whose value has been ultimately predetermined. New music is for discussion, controversy, opinion, life. The works are freshly formed; their value is up for grabs, which, as much as anything else, is why they demand and receive the kind of attention from audiences all artists crave. Audiences are central to the picture in a new-music concert, not simply crowds strolling by masterpieces in a genteel sonic art gallery.

The New Creations Festival continues on March 8 and March 11 (

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