Since 2014, Canada’s Azrieli Foundation has awarded prizes for new or recent Jewish music. While the Foundation understands that what makes a piece of music “Jewish” can often be debated, it has a track record of identifying and encouraging really fine composers. (See my review of 2018’s winning compositions.) This year, it added a prize for “Canadian music.”
The gala concert celebrating the 2020 winners featured four world premieres performed by the small chamber orchestra Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne conducted by Lorraine Vaillancourt. One piece featured soprano Sharon Azrieli, another mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó. On the whole the program met the Foundation’s high standards, with much wonderful and engaging music spanning a swath of the spectrum of modern concert music creativity.
“Kadosh Kadosh and Cursed” by Jerusalem native Yitzhak Yedid was inspired by the Temple Mount and by Israel’s internal strife and hopes for peace. Part One offers a modernist procession of forceful gestures, ominous tone clusters, serpentine threads, and march-like cadences with a revealing mix of dissonance and harmonies. Certain passages reminded me of Hindemith’s cerebral experimentation; others calls to mind Stravinsky’s picture-painting. All was expressed through bravura musicianship from all hands, including some nontraditional techniques.
There is no “following” this music in any sustained way – you must surrender to it or reject it. That can be a dangerous recipe. But in this case, the first path is the far more rewarding one.
Part Two is quieter but with similar harmonic tension and rhythmic fragmentation. I heard the cries of the damned, envisioned scenes from Dante, and “followed” without aim right through to the heartbreaking dénouement. Yedid speaks of hopes for integration within Israel, but hopefulness isn’t the feeling this powerful piece leaves one with.
“Dissidence” is a new arrangement by Jonathan Monro of a three-song cycle from Canadian composer Pierre Mercure, songs that also form part of Mercure’s Cantate pour un Joie (1955). They featured Sharon Azrieli, who sang with a lovely, liquid tone, unprepossessing but focused and compelling.
These very enjoyable lieder-like pieces are settings of poems by French-Canadian poet and composer Gabriel Charpentier. Composed in a much more traditional music mode than Yedid’s piece, they have a storytelling vibe. The melodies build on a rising scale, as of prayers ascending to Heaven – an effect enhanced by the singer’s positioning in front of the stained glass windows of the venue, the Salle Bourgie at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts.
The three poems move from despair to timid hope to joy. After a slow, yearning second song, the finale featured bell-like sounds from the orchestra that Azrieli paralleled with more opened-up singing: “a cry of joy has escaped from my body / everywhere I look are people dancing.”
This Year, a Prize for Canadian Music
Asked “What is Canadian music?” Keiko Devaux answers, “Canadian music is what I am.” That may be the best answer a composer can give to such a question. Her “Arras” begins with voiceless vocalizations and toneless string sounds that suggest insect noises. It builds quickly into a sequence of slithering rises and falls. Devaux sets haunting swells and anguished cries against gentle melodies from the strings and later the brass and woodwinds.
The juxtaposition of feedback-like atonality with familiar melodic modes and simple chord changes has fascinating results. Uncanny sounds like human voices mingle with the traditional instruments of the orchestra. There’s a distinct influence of 20th-century electronic music.
The piece has a mysterious, slow-moving narrative flow, like a tide coming in and going out – a continuous development of creative transitions that create a sonic universe of their own. Glissandos, for example, read as not exotic but rather a standard element of a new vocabulary that rapidly grows to feel like a foreign land I was more than happy to spend some time in.
The one piece that didn’t strike much of a chord with me was the closing work, Yotam Haber’s “Estro poetico-armonico III.” This set of short pieces opens stormily, then clears the way for Krisztina Szabó’s glorious mezzo. Throughout, the piece asks the soloist to sing Israeli poems by several authors in dialogue with recorded chants of cantorial and liturgical music from the Italian traditions. It’s a neat idea, but I kept waiting for something to grab me musically, and it never quite happened. The movements aren’t different enough, and when big gestures occurred it felt as if they had been programmed for effect.
The best orchestral moments came in the finale. And fortunately, the whole piece benefited from Szabó’s bright, smooth tone, her passages snaking among and over the recorded poems. She was superb.
Despite that one disappointment, this was a happy and compelling way to spend 90 minutes. I’m even getting used to seeing socially distanced musicians in live-streamed or recorded concerts. I don’t think it will ever stop being weird, though, to watch instrumentalists rise and bow in complete silence. Getting audiences back into concert halls can’t happen soon enough.
It’s clear that Canadian music and Jewish music are both in vibrant form despite the pandemic. Thankfully, institutions like the Azrieli Foundation are not taking COVID-19 lying down. A video replay of this excellent concert is available until Jan. 23, 2021.