Over the course of three days (January 22-24), the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra will banish the winter blues by flooding the ears, minds and souls of seasoned music lovers and those with a sense of artistic adventure alike. What Next? (proudly billed as “Hamilton’s first and only festival of new music”) offers a pair of chamber concerts, two lectures, an orchestra performance and a late-night electroacoustic event in a trio of venues.
What is new music? It’s the now generally accepted label for fresh classical music. At various times known as Twentieth Century music (obviously past its best-before date) or Contemporary Music (every piece ever written would, at one time, fall into that category), those terms achieved relative pejorative status and were code for many: “no tunes can be expected, best give this a miss.” To be sure, as serious music (another poor label) composers struggled to find a new voice after the genius of Stravinsky, there were many pieces created (almost exclusively by government or philanthropic commission) that were played once then put on the shelf. Public demand for further hearings was virtually nonexistent.
Happily, times have changed.
In recent years, our finest composers have re-discovered melody, permitted a few consonant chords into the mix and learned the value of repetition as the means of getting their music into the ear then stored in memory. The emergence of sound scores as a vital part of filmmaking has also produced some spectacularly listenable results and regained interest in the current state of our most accessible art. One need only think of Philip Glass (the master of minimalism) to appreciate how a wide audience has gone back to revering rather than reviling our living creators’ latest compositions.
The brainchild of HPO Music Director James Sommerville, this festival’s three days have a remarkably varied array of forms, styles and possibilities that will inspire, energize and engage all those lucky enough to have an inexpensive pass ($29; $19 for students).
On the opening Friday, the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Pavilion is the setting for two events. At 5:00 p.m., “the challenges and rewards of the twenty-first century artistic environment” will be discussed by Sommerville, composers John Burge, Jeremy Flower, Kelly-Marie Murphy and David Ogborn—a busy teacher and director of McMaster University’s Cybernetic Orchestra. Three hours later, “Shadows and Ghosts” features chamber works by two Hungarian masters (György Kurtág’s The Little Predicament, Béla Bartók’s Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano—commissioned in 1938 by Benny Goodman), Russian Alfred Schnittke’s String Trio and a pair of Canadian compositions (Gary Kulesha’s Horn Trio, followed by the world première of John Burge’s And One for Mahler). Full disclosure: your reporter had the privilege of bringing Burge’s The Last Day of Summer to life with the Nepean Symphony Orchestra in 1987. His work is immediately accessible and emotionally rich.
Saturday evening at 8:00 p.m., the only orchestra concert of the series takes place in the intimate surroundings of Hamilton Place Studio theatre. Music by Murphy (Black Band), Andrew Staniland (Devolution), Thomas Adès (Living Toys—from 1994, it’s the oldest piece in the lineup), Sammy Moussa (Polarlicht) and Johnny Greenwood’s delightfully titled popcorn superhet receiver.
After the orchestra finishes its set, the venue shifts to The Pearl Company (16 Steven Street) for “Late Night Electroacoustic” (10:30 p.m.). The largely plugged-in works include Steve Reich’s Clapping Music and New York Counterpoint, then the world première of Sergio Barroso’s latest for bass clarinet and tape before concluding with the world première of Flower’s Those Eyelashes Stay With Me (scored for French horn, clarinet and laptop) and his solo laptop electronic.
The final day of the fest (everything’s at The Pearl Company) brings back Ogborn and Sommerville along with Laurel Trainor (director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind) at 1:00 p.m. to delve into how our brains process our most universal art. At 3:00 p.m., their observations can immediately be evaluated during the closing chamber music concert. This time the eclectic mix features Ravi Shankar’s L’Aube Enchantée (The Enchanted Dawn), Elma Miller’s La Nuit s’Ouvre (Opening Night), Paul Matthusen’s Of Minutiae and Memory, letting Scott Good have the last notes of the inaugural festival with his Sorensen Variations for trombone and string quartet.
Those with a taste for the here and now and/or wanting to further understand how music’s path is currently being tread are in for a weekend of unbridled creativity. JWR