The Best of Montréal’s Contemporary Music Concerts in 2005

In the spirit of year end list making I’ve decided reflect on the forty plus concerts I attended last year to create a chronological list of Montréal’s best contemporary music concerts in 2005.

1. Highlights from the biannualMontréal/Nouvelles Musiques Festival:

(This years’ festival consisted of eleven days, about twenty concerts, composer talks, and a homage to France.)

Nouvel Ensemble Moderne (February 28th):
The focus of this concert was two groundbreaking works by the brilliant French composer Philippe LerouxVoi(Rex) and (d)Aller. As he explained in his talk the next day, Voi(Rex) (which I had the good fortune to study prior to the performance) is a methodically constructed “model of a model,” in which the poetry and the shape of their letters helped dictate the music.

François Bayle and Bernard Parmageiani (March 1st):

This was an amazing concert featuring two of the great masters of acousmatic composition. For the first half, Bayle filled the hall with seemingly endless transformations of instrumental and water timbres. In the second half, Parmageiani dug deeper into the inner nature of sound and space with timbral explorations and aural illusions that still haunt me to this day.

McGill Contemporary Music Ensemble (March 3rd):
I cannot give enough praise to Gérard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (or Four Songs to traverse the threshold). For those note familiar with the work, I’m going to declare this recording of it a must-own. Heard live, the work’s horrifyingly lucid contemplation of eschatology is utterly breathtaking and, for me, a live-changing experience. (Eerily, Grisey died suddenly soon after the works’ completion.)

Ensemble Court-circuit (March 6th):
This concert of amazing contemporary instrumental and ensemble virtuosity was a source of controversy amongst my many of my colleagues. The main criticism was that in 90 minutes the concert probably contained as many notes as half a dozen other concerts combined. I, on the other hand, wasn’t disturbed by this and absolutely overcome by the creative flurry of unfolding shapes that put me in a constant state of jubilant ecstasy for a days afterwards. One highlight was …à mesure, another of the many masterpieces by the Court-circuit cofounder Philippe Hurel.
The other highlight was the North American premiere by of Accident (Tombeau de Grisey) by John Rea – a stirring work which contains hidden quotes from the funeral march in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the trombone spectrum from Grisey’sPartiels

2. The best of the rest:

Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal: Kent Nagano conducts Messiaen (April 5th and 6th):
The biggest event this year in the Montréal orchestral world was the appointment of Kent Nagano’s as conductor and musical director for the OSM. To commemorate this, he conducted two concerts and, although the first and bigger of the these two contained Mahler’s Symphony #3, the better was the second which contained Messiaen’s glorious cumulative statement for the orchestra – Éclaires sur l’Au-Delà.

Stephen Clarke, piano (August 11th)
Near the end of a hot balmy Montréal summer Innovations en concert presented a free series of concerts called Jusqa’aux oreilles (Up to your ears). The highlight of this series was this phenomenal concert of modernist and postmodern piano works performed by the pianist Stephen Clark. The program featured a stunning performances of Scelsi’s Suite #10, Luigi Nono’s mixed-work/tribute to the piano playing of Mario Pollini …sofferte onde serene, and the hypnotically sonorous Feigenaum Cascades by the Canadian composer Udo Kasemets.

Ensemble de la SMCQ: Le Mythe de Sisyphe (October 12th)
The Société de musique contemporaine du Québec started off its 40th anniversary season was a bang by performing Georg Freidrich Haas’s contemporary 71 minute masterpiece In Vain. The work is what Denys Bouliane wonderfully described as an “Angst-ridden Brucknerian approach to spectralism.” This is a work that is meant to be experienced live. About forty minutes in, the house lights go off and the musicians are supposed to play the music from memory while only being cued by a series of light bulb flashes on both sides of the stage that slowly accelerate and awaken the audience from its hypnotized state until the house lights turn back on and the work ends.

Kontakte !: D’Arcy Philip Gray and Brigitte Poulin (November 15th):
Few things can prepare one for the intensely visceral experience that is hearing Stockhausen’s masterpiece Kontakte live. In this extraordinarily virtuosic concert, percussionist D’Arcy Philip Gray and pianist Brigitte Poulin performed this work magnificently alongside the stunning Tombeau in memoriam Gérard Grisey by Philippe Hurel and world-premiere of the very worthy Trans/Fusion by my friend Geof Holbrook.

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