JWR Articles: Live Event - Improv at City Hall (Featured composer: Scott Thomson) - August 11, 2013

Improv at City Hall

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Surround sound of the highest order

Having heard so many concerts in venues that come up just short of concert hall standards at Chamberfest, the notion of a noontime program of improvised art “written” for the space it would occupy (five storeys in the rotunda of the City of Ottawa’s HQ) proved irresistible.

Coincidentally, heavy rain precluded the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony on Parliament Hill, but live, free music was readily available just a few blocks away from the federal seat of power.

Arriving just before the noon start, what fun it was to see a growing assemblage ranging in age from an eight-month-old toddler (eager to applaud during, between or after the “movements”) to octogenarians still keen on expanding their musical horizons.

With our age of anyone can be a videographer/photographer anytime, anywhere, the smartphone and tablet auteurs easily outnumbered the professional image gatherers scattered throughout the combined performance/viewer/listener area—no doubt YouTube would have a covey of files uploaded far ahead of the 6 O’clock News (and who might have captured the more compelling shots?).

Naturally, thankfully, the dreaded “announcements” (“Shut thy phones”; “Honour our sponsors”) were absent. With the constant comings and goings of city hall staff on their lunch and surprised ratepayers going about their business—in a sense, hearing some their tax dollars being put to good use—the “white noise” accompanying the music was a bed of chatter, hustle and bustle, electronic greetings and reminder alarms (my own cellphone struck twice—something that would have resulted in hara-kiri in the confines of the more usual performance places) plus —marvellously—the antique cymbal chimes emanating from the elevator banks, fitting in perfectly with Scott Thomson’s civic soundscape, Arcade Air.

Beginning in unison (as if tuning, some might have thought), the trumpets and trombones established a sonic pedal even as they walked above the main floor from post to structural post (more’s the pity they weren’t attired in the Governor General’s Foot Guards’ garb, subliminally filling the gap for tourists disappointed at missing the red-and-black pomp and circumstance in the shadow of the Peace Tower).

Along with the brilliant instrumentalists, flitting female forms provided largely unrelated movement as they traversed the raised gangways (the highlight of those being a chase to the “wings” as a photojournalist attempted to capture tomorrow’s cover image).

Hints of jazz began to work their way into Thompson’s deliberately sketchy mix; eventually—given the architecture—bringing new meaning to the term “bridge section.”

The emergence of a second-storey “horsey” trumpet (somewhere, Leroy Anderson was smiling) kindled a sudden resonance with the precious evening’s “goat trills” found in all their bleating glory in Monteverdi’s Vespers (cross-reference below).

Just as the soundscape threatened to slip into predictable territory, the Element Choir Project (conducted, somewhat belieing the notion of improv) began adding their dulcet tones to the musical offering. Their wordless contributions couldn’t help but recall Ravel’s “ahhing” chorus in Daphnis and Chloé.

The next sound sensation came in the form of two, unaccompanied solo voices, “Hey, hey, hey” to get our attention. These antiphonal declamations lost the crowd sooner than expected.

Once the brass resumed (more jazzful—can writers improvise too?) the listeners quickly refocused only to be rewarded—intentionally or not—with a quote from Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now” (is love, sweet love). Truer words were never better “instrumentalized.”

Now surrounded by the artistic trust (artistic director Roman Borys high in the rafters, executive director Glenn Hodges just steps away), it was good to know that this experiment in sound and outreach was totally supported by the Festival’s senior staff.

Soon after, the opening unison resounding once again to end the piece; full circle, the delighted—some surprised—assemblage went back about their business. Not surprisingly, the rain had been banished, thanks to those aerial sounds—like the clouds above—which would, necessarily, never be repeated again. JWR

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Featured composer - Scott Thomson
Arcade Air - Scott Thomson
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival
Cross-reference(s): Please click on the image link(s) below
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