by Irwin Block
May 15, 2015
Victoriaville, Que. – The festival that put this city on the innovative music map is underway and judging from the first five concerts deserves high marks for quality and integrity, even if several did reach the highest standard.
East met West in Burning Bridge – the octet that mixes traditional Chinese and Western instrumentation – and there was plenty of fire Thursday in this first of 20 events that draw fans from across North America for this 31st Festival International de Musique Actuelle, a celebration of new and creative music Led by Jason Kao Hwang, the American virtuoso violinist, Burning Bridge combined erhu (two-stringed violin) and pipa (four-stringed lute) with a powerful horn section and mighty rhythm unit in a 90-minute set of originals. It was held in a hall that sits on a mountaintop adjacent to the town of 43,000 residents, 100 miles northeast of Montreal.
The pieces often start with a Chinese-sounding theme and then flow into a blues or contemporary mode, breaking up into duos that exploit the sonic possibilities of, for example, tuba and drums in the lowest registers or violin and erhu in the highest. The group injected urgency and beauty to the set of melodies, with engaged and inspired playing by trombonist Steve Swell, bassist Ken Filiano, tuba player Joseph Daly, Herb Robertson on trumpet and flugelhorn, and drummer Andrew Drury. Naturally, they tended to overpower the strings in full ensemble mode, but there was enough section work featuring strings to overcome this inherent weakness.
The next concerts were in the town’s hockey coliseum, with tables set up on what in season is ice. On stage for his big show was Montreal composer and reeds payer Jean Derome, with 19 musicians – the cream of the city’s creative music community – playing his latest work titled Résistances. This 75-minute piece combines a written score with improvised sections governed by pre-arranged hand gestures – the game-piece style that John Zorn pioneered. It began with a low-register rumble providing a subversive undercurrent, then slowly blossoming into an exposé of sonic possibilities with such a varied ensemble. It worked as a group effort, but the leader did not call for solos that could have taken the music to another level.
Because of the massive sound, provided by three acoustic bassists and one bass guitarist, three drummers, and two electric guitars, individual contributions that could have taken the concert to a higher level were not heard. Still, Derome developed a broad sonic range, injecting humour, drama, even parody, into the mix, resulting in a generous musical tribute to the evolution of the creative and innovative music scene over his 45-year career.
The midnight concert, a collaboration linking the Canadian krautrock group Suuns (guitarists Ben Shamie and Joe Yarmush, drummer Liam O’Neill, and bassist Max Henry), with Jerusalem in My Heart (Radwan Ghazi Moumneh on buzuk, or long-necked and fretted lute, and synthesizer) was so heavily amplified it made my heart tremble. The minimalist soundtrack left me cold, even as it appeared to entrance a gaggle of transfixed head-bangers.
Friday’s musical menu injected a literary element into the musical collage with an early afternoon gig that featured the music of Canadian Linda Bouchard performed by the superb trio of Guy Few (trumpet, piano, vocals), trumpeter Eric Vaillancourt and accordionist Michael Bridge. They also recited poems by award winning Anne Carson, over a pre-recorded score, and interacted as characters in a play. The music alone, which was strong and well played, would have sufficed.
The Canadian duo of Laura Kavanaugh and Ian Birse traded electro-acoustic sounds and projected visuals from their respective tables in an intense 45-minute display. After half an hour they seemed to have exhausted their repertoire but continued nonetheless for another 15 minutes.