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Sounds From the High Arctic

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/08/2014 -  
“Spring For Music” Presents:
R. Murray Schafer: Symphony No. 1 (US Premiere)
Derek Charke: 13 Inuit Throat Song Games (US Premiere)
Vincent Ho: The Shaman: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (US Premiere)

Tanya Tagaq (Throat Singer), Dame Evelyn Glennie (Percussion)
Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Mickelthwate (Music Director)

T. Tagaq/E. Glennie (©Courtesy of the Artists)

Is Carnegie Hall a victim of the notorious Throat-Singing Lobbying Group?? A fraction smaller than the Oil Lobby, Israeli Lobby and Pharmaceutical Lobby, the Throat-Singing Lobbists have apparently blackmailed, extorted or bribed the Stern Auditorium to fill its stage with these talented artists from the Far North.

Two weeks ago, Huun-Huur-Tu, those four wonderful gentlemen from Tuva Province in Siberia, paraded their extraordinary talents in one of David Lang’s “Story” concerts. Last night, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra came before us in “Spring For Music” with an Inuit-derived throat-singer, Tanya Tagaq. Who knows what laryngal show-biz talents will follow?

Still, all the music was delightful. Huun-Huur-Tu resemed a quartet of Hassidic rabbis sitting over a pile of Talmudic scriptures, offering their conclusions in an ancient unknown tongue. Ms Tagaq had an entire symphony orchestra behind her. It was less pure, but added a balletic dimension.

Derek Charke’s 13 Inuit Throat Song Games would, I have imagined, have a woman sitting still and wailing through her throat. But Tanya Tagaq, born and raised in Canada’s High Arctic, literally jumped on the stage in a short dress-skirt, and over the next 20 minutes darted back and forth like a dancer tethered on an invisible leash. Her steps were limited to three or four paces back and forth, her arms and hands mimed oaring a boat, shooting an arrow, aiming a gun, or lifting into the air or bending downward.

I don’t know the word (in English or Inuit), but as the program notes said, she was “playing games” with the music. The 13 songs were tied together, linked by incessant syncopated notes, with pauses for first chair strings to play their own music, and Ms. Tagaq to “throat” her own songs through a microphone.

Her actual tones sunk far below the orchestra, but this was as much a physical exercise as a symphonic song, and she was indeed a sumptuous entertainment with her orchestra.

Actually until last night, I only knew Winnipeg as the home of Guy Maddin, one of the most extraordinary film directors in the world. That the town has a community orchestra, an ensemble whose artists and conductors have included David Oistrakh, Itzhak Perlman, Glenn Gould and John Barbirolli over the past 66 years was news to me. They were a most competent group, although they played three New York premieres, so it was difficult to gauge how they would sound in mainstream music.

But in playing the Inuit songs–or, more important, accompanying Evelyn Glennie–they showed good workmanship under their conductor.

To those who don’t know percussionist Evelyn Glennie, no words can be spoken. Canadian-born Vincent Ho wrote The Shaman Concerto with her in mind, and she was physically and musically the most dazzling thing that could ever be on stage.

Her waist-long now white hair did indeed give her the looks of Korean shamans I used to study on the island of Cheju. She walked around the stage to her three ensembles: a miscellany or metal contraptions, a bass drum, snares and tam-tams, and two vibraphones (or electronic marimbas). For the second and fourth movements, she played in turn a lovely lullaby, and a frenetic fire dance. But the first movement music was, with all its frenzied drumming and tingling, very much like the shamanistic drumming I would hear many years ago. The third movement was a “summoning of the spirits”, and Mr. Glennie–more than the Shamanistic Tuva players or the dancing Mr. Tagaq–gave that sense of summoning of the spirits.

She is indeed a force to herself.

But that is of course one of the benefits of “Spring For Music”, the week of orchestras from North America–and a festival which is sadly reaching its demise. (A strange demise, since the audience is always packed to the rafters.

Like the other visiting orchestras, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra was playing the most unusual works, and in this case, all of them belonged–ethnically and geographically– to their own area.

A. Mickelthwate(©Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra)

Alexander Mickelthwate opened the concert with a symphony by Canada’s premiere composer/environmentalist, R. Murray Schafer. Mr. Schafer, I am informed has one of the three great musical blogs on line (with Alex Ross and Jeremy Denk). He is also a very very competent, very original symphonist.

At this first hearing, I was unable to follow the first movement too well–but the middle section, with its low brass chorales and its Messiaen-ic birdsongs was beautiful. The second movement was titled “mysteriously”, and the whistles of the orchestra, all in tune, gave it that aura. But the finale, with its very strange repeated solo trumpet call seemed symbolic of...well, of something. I don’t know what.

Except that I am longing to hear this work again, since the structure, orchestration and mysterious messages were both attractive and intriguing, in a concert which encompassed those very same adjectives.


CODA: Mr. Mickelthwate’s encore, from Bernstein’s On the Town, was jaunty enough, but he missed a grand opportunity to do something which would be talked about for years. With the Canadians in the audience waving their red cloths handed out before the program (made in China, of course), and the orchestra waving the same cloths, Carnegie Hall looked like a May Day Celebration.

How splendid it would have been if, while the reds were waving, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra played and sung The International.

That, though, is the spirit of “Spring For Music”. If this really is the last season, we will have lost a week of zest, enthusiasm and singular audience spirit.

Harry Rolnick



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