Brilliant ‘soundscape’ opens OSO season

The symphony opens its 2011-12 season accompanied by Kelowna Ballet and trumpeter Guy Few performing Schafer's The Falcon's Trumpet.

It’s not often that a theatre audience applauds the moment they see the set, but on Sunday at the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra’s season opening concert they did just that.

The curtain-up revealed the orchestra way off to the rear of the stage, lit like night in a forest, as though distant torches glowed through the trees, gorgeously reflected off the Performing Arts Centre’s dance surface.

Six dancers came through the auditorium doors, and began a graceful rotation in front of the orchestra.

Thus started the much heralded world ballet premiere in Kelowna and Vernon of The Falcon’s Trumpet, resulting from a three-year collaboration between the OSO and Ballet Kelowna.

The music, described by composer R. Murray Schafer as a soundscape, was all around us, with more musicians above us in all four of the Kings’ boxes.

Written as a concerto for trumpet, this was wonderfully modern.  (I’m no expert, but Shostakovitz came to mind.) Nor am I a ballet expert (in fact I usually avoid them), but it worked beautifully –– the dance and the music were totally symbiotic.

Choreography was by David LaHay (founding artistic director of Ballet Kelowna) who has created many original works. This was a triumphant adaptation to an existing concert piece.

Credit must also go to the lighting designer Tom Bradshaw, Kelowna Ballet’s production manager, adding beautiful visual touches to movement and music, occasionally even ignoring the dancers in favour of the musicians.

Soloing on trumpet, with searing bird calls from the darkness, was Guy Few from Toronto, performing in Vernon for the second time.

Costumed for this performance as the falconer of the title (“That’s my vision from Toronto”), he has premiered numerous works by Canadian composers through the CBC, the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council.

Described by Montreal’s Le Devoir as “outrageously gifted,” he’s won several awards including a Grammy.

This celebrity studded night also included the composer himself.

Schafer, who invented the word “soundscape” (confirmed by Wikipedia), worked in the ‘70s on acoustic ecology at Simon Fraser University. Growing interest in this research led to the formation of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology in 1994. The forum has influenced countless composers world-wide and has had significant influence on Schafer’s own environmental pieces.

Composer of more than 90 works, many of them environmental, he loves opportunities for greater audience participation and awareness, both aurally and visually.

Asked how he felt to have his piece adopted for ballet, Schafer told me that it came as no surprise.

“But the question is, how are you going to make it work? It’s the kind of piece that exists between dance and music. Here both were of equal strength, especially as the musicians were not relegated to the pit,” he said.

The Falcon’s Trumpet was written for trumpet soloist Stuart Laughton, a member of the Wolf Project for many years, and who shared with Schafer a love for the Canadian wilderness.

“Most of the work was written while I was giving a course at the University of Strasbourg, and I have no doubt that my nostalgia for the Canadian lakes and forests strongly influenced the conception of this piece,” said Schafer, adding, “I was trying to catch something of the spacious resonance when a trumpet plays across a lake at dawn or sunset, causing the whole forest to echo and vibrate.”

The first half of the evening featured three more nature pieces: Quiet City by Aaron Copland, and Gli Uccelli (The Birds) by Ottorino Respighi.

And we started with Cantus Arcticus (Song of the Arctic, subtitled Concerto for Birds and Orchestra) by Einojuhani Rautavaara, Finland’s most widely heard composer since Sibelius.  He had hiked through forests and marshlands, recording bird songs and choosing “soloists” for his concerto.

This time we really did get a soundscape – bird recordings came and went, beautifully balanced against the orchestra.

–– Freelance writer Jim Elderton reviews the Okanagan Symphony season in his column, Classical Notes.