Festival review: Superb performances capture power of Canadian composer

Review by Mark Morris, Edmonton Journal

Now Hear This Festival of New Music

Works by: R. Murray Schafer

Organization: New Music Edmonton

Performers: Molinari Quartet; Pro Coro conductor (Michael Zaugg)

When: Friday (Molinari Quartet); Saturday (Pro Coro)

Where: Holy Trinity Anglican Church

EDMONTON - It is extraordinary that the music of R. Murray Schafer isn’t better known across Canada. Now in his 80th year, he is one of Canada’s great pioneers, the musician poet of the country’s unique relationship with the environment. He should be as much a household name as Margaret Laurence or Emily Carr.

That he isn’t is doubtless because he writes ‘modern music.’ But Schafer is the least abstract of composers — his music appeals to the emotions, and indeed almost all of his music originates in non-musical ideas, often connected with the Canadian landscape.

All through his compositional career he has been interested in the sounds around us — natural sounds, environmental sounds, often very beautiful sounds — and explored their incorporation into the formal language of music. Those extraordinarily evocative explorations have influenced other composers across the globe.

The power and beauty of his music was captured on the weekend by a pair of superb concerts at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, given on Friday by Montréal’s Molinari String Quartet and on Saturday by Edmonton’s Pro Coro as part of Now Hear This, Edmonton’s innovative new music festival.

The performances themselves were stunning: the best instrumental playing and the best choral singing I have heard in this classical music season.

The Molinari gave us the four most recent Schafer String Quartets, 9 through 12, dating from 2005 to 2012. Schafer’s quartets are as individual as the rest of his music. The whole series is clearly an ongoing intimate cycle, with themes and ideas from earlier quartets regularly reused or developed in later ones.

These last four also reflect many of Shafer’s musical concerns, differing in their surface sound worlds, if not in underlying substance. No 9 opens and closes with a beautiful taped child’s wordless vocal solo, and (less effectively) occasionally uses taped sounds of children in a playground. It was described as “joyful” by the Molinari, but was actually dark and intense, though with a gorgeous goosebump moment where the strings seemed to hover like a hawk on a wind shear.

It also illustrated a real conundrum in Schafer’s quartets. Much of the writing in the ninth is uncannily like that of Shostakovich — the same dark-hued colours, the same phrase shapes, the same rhythmical techniques, the same handing over between instruments — and there is at least one near-direct quote from a Shostakovich string quartet.

This can be observed in other Schafer string quartets (notably the fourth). Since it isn’t a style he uses elsewhere, I have long wondered whether there isn’t a hidden agenda in his quartets that Schafer hasn’t revealed, for there were Shostakovich moments elsewhere in this concert.

The overall sound world of the 10th, though, is quite different. Titled Winter Birds, it is a magical one-movement expression of a bird-filled winter landscape, from chickadees (marvellously played by first violin Olga Ranzenhofer) through the drumming of grouse to an ecstatic dawn chorus.

No 11 is more formal (it is one of the few Schafer quartets divided into movements), and its sound world is almost Scandinavian, the colours of the landscapes of the north, the sheen of the second movement hauntingly beautiful. The 12th, written for the Molinari, is short, enigmatic at the end, often elegiac, but imbued with the spirit of the dance. It is extraordinarily energetic and exuberant for a composer approaching his 80s, with a huge range of expressive effects.

Perhaps the work that most captured Schafer’s fusion of the Canadian wilderness and formal music was heard in Pro Coro’s a cappella concert, led by their conductor Michael Zaugg. Magic Songs is based on fragments and sounds collected over a long period beside the campfire in Schafer’s Ontario wilderness cabin retreat, with everything from native dance chants to natural sounds (notably a coyote) and echoes of Inuit throat singing.

The range of sounds, often of great purity, is extraordinary, and it must be extremely difficult to sing, requiring a pinpoint sense of pitch (especially when the sopranos move through various keys against a fixed tonal base from the rest).

Hear The Sounds Go Round is a very recent work, which premièred last month. Pro Coro’s performance, with the choir divided into three, used far fewer singers than that première, much to the advantage of the music. It is really about the sound of choral singing, with antiphonal and round effects, undulating, decidedly communal, and here was beautifully sung.

Why, then, were there so few at these marvellous concerts?

I am reminded of the adage about the prophet in his own land.

© Michael Zaugg 2019