Ancestral Voices

dam-mn-marion_newman_headshot_7x10_cmykBramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony were in town last night for a one night stand at Roy Thomson Hall.  My reason for going was primarily to see Marion Newman sing Ancestral Voices; a work composed for her by Tovey.  It’s the composer’s contribution to the sesqui and it deals with the Dominion of Canada’s troubled relationship with the original peoples of this land.  The four movements trace an arc from an imagined pre colonial “Arkady” cleverly using a Keats text that deals with a clearly not Canadian imagined state of nature through to Charles Mair’s The Last Bison; a very early warning of what happens when Man and Nature get out of balance.  Then comes the most chilling part; an excerpt from a letter in the government archives about residential schools”…separate, isolate, educate; dominate, assimilate; Sow the seeds and forcibly, effectively; Kill the Indian in the child.”  It concludes with fragments of letters from Harper and Trudeau cut with parts of the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples.

It’s a powerful piece.  The music is very much in a modern Western idiom.  No cheesy borrowings or allusions here.  Not that one would expect that in a collaboration between a composer who has clearly thought deeply about these issues and Marion, who has lived them.  The performance was both exhilarating and thought provoking.  It’s mostly pretty dark and the third movement, unsurprisingly, had a fierce bleakness.  Marion sang very beautifully, with feeling and impeccable diction, and got sensitive support from the podium.  Sometimes one can hear the singer in that hall.  All in all pretty impressive.  To cap it off Marion sang Kinanu; the lullabye she wrote for her sister, accompanying herself on drum.

The rest of the programme was a pot pourri (Tovey’s words) of high Romantic classics.  There was a spirited account of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major with some virtuoso playing from soloist James Ehnes, who gave us a little solo Bach as a palate cleanser.  After the interval it was Elgar’s Enigma Variations.  I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to the whole thing though of course everyone has heard Nimrod a gazillion times.  It’s quite interesting but I guess for me Elgar will always largely be a composer I feel meh about, bar a handful of works like Gerontius and the Cello Concerto.  The performance was lively and full blooded, as one would expect, with some neat work from the principal cello and viola.  And there were encores; two of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances.


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