festival news


On the road again...

Monday November 24
This morning we departed for Manchester. The sky was clear, really for the first time since our arrival in Amsterdam nine days ago. (Appropriately, this festival focusing on Canadian music, film and literature was accompanied by sleet, hail, and more snow than Amsterdam sometimes sees in an entire winter.) But on this cloudless day, as we gained altitude from Schipol Airport, I could see clearly and identify the canal that links Amsterdam to the North Sea, Zaandam (where we picked up the tuba for Richard Ayres' piece), and the entire IJselmeer with the city of Hoorn sitting in its bay to the north. Hoorn was where I lived on and off for seven years, latterly planning SHIFT. Its new concert hall, a white cube on the dyke, shone like a beacon in the sunlight. The polders of West Friesland to the north were covered in snow; and across the IJselmeer in Friesland proper, a thicker accumulation must give them hope of a good winter - one perhaps even cold enough to run the Elf Staden Toch, the 210 km, eleven town speed skating race that remains at the heart of the Dutch psyche, despite the perennial failure of winter.

SHIFT is over, at least for the moment. The nature and extent of its musical ambitions (I will speak of these first) became apparent as we began, last Monday, the work of putting together two new pieces with the Ives Ensemble, rehearsing and coordinating four new works with film, and experimenting with all the sounds that can be made inside a piano by six people (as they leaned over the instrument, looking very much to the audience like "The Anatomy Lesson" by Rembrandt.) As is inevitable, some of the works were delivered late, making it impossible to rehearse them in Toronto; others had to be worked out in the hall. Four days of intense rehearsal, the expert support of the Muziekgebouw's production staff and our host's encouragement made SHIFT's concerts a huge success.

The first was a concert by AskoSchonberg with Barbara Hannigan, conducted by Etienne Siebens. Premieres of works by Michael Oesterle and James Rolfe, the first ever Canadian commissions by AskoSchonberg, as well a the Dutch premiere of Lettura di Dante by Claude Vivier and a new piece by Corrie van Binsbergen provided an auspicious beginning. (See posted review.)

On day 2 Quatuor Bozzini performed a dazzling programme that included premieres of two Dutch works, by Hanna Kulenty and Richard Ayres. The latter actually had had a previous partial performance but this was the first time a quartet had been able to handle the difficult middle movement. Other string quartets were by Martijn Voorvelt, Michael Oesterle and Martin Arnold. Jarko Aikens, artistic coordinator of the Muziekgebouw, declared that before the year was out he would have Dutch string quartets performing the work he had just heard by Martin, contact;vault; after Friday night's film and live music event, which included a new work by Martin Arnold, Jarko pronounced him the discovery of the festival.

Continuum's concert with the Ives Ensemble included works for the combined ensembles by Linda Bouchard and Guus Janssen, works for each ensemble alone by Mayke Nas (for Continuum) and Gyula Csapo (for Ives), while Continuum performed a work from its touring repertoire, raW by James Rolfe. In my opinion, and not to diminish the quality and accomplishments of the other concerts and events, this was the gravitational centre of the festival. It's natural, I suppose, that I feel this way - a joint concert with the Ives was my original proposal to Jan Wolff over three years ago. But he insisted that I make the event bigger and include other art forms, and so SHIFT took form. But for other reasons, this concert on Thursday Nov 20 embodied for me the spirit of the festival and produced its greatest moment. Two ensembles from different musical cultures (cultures produced by differing systems and levels of funding, by different musicians' work regimes and conditions, by starkly contrasting fundamental national realities) came together, not always easily but with huge good will and a determination to make the programme work. Continuum and the Ives rehearsed together and separately, in the capacious rehearsal studios of the Muziekgebouw, for up to ten hours a day over four days. The Ives performs without conductor, no matter what the piece or circumstance; with limited resources and busy freelance schedules to reconcile, Continuum has only just begun to move in this direction. Working with the Ives was a learning opportunity, but one not without differences and frustrations. Every problem that came up, however, was satisfactorily dispatched; the result was a concert that was, according to acclaimed Dutch musicologist Thea Derks, "Dazzling and impressive."

Pieces ranged from Mayke Nas' Douze Mains (which required Continuum's six musicians to play inside the piano with the different sonic possibilities contained in credit and membership cards, wooden skewers and coffee stir sticks, dish washing and percussion brushes, hard and soft guitar picks, fingers and finger nails) to Guus Janssen's Ex Tempore, for mirrored ensembles with the French horn in the centre providing cues for everything that happened. The pieces in between were new works by Linda Bouchard and Gyula Csapo, as well as raW by James Rolfe. Wim Laman, producer of the VPRO live radio broadcast found it a compelling and highly successful programme.

Immediately following the concert, the Ives Ensemble was presented the award for ensemble of the year, a bittersweet recognition in the face of the total elimination of their funding in the latest round of Dutch applications. Except for their upcoming Canadian tour as part of SHIFT, this unique ensemble, instrumental in the development of so many composers and aesthetic movements, may cease to exist. It is a devastating loss not only for the Dutch new music community but internationally. On the positive side of Canada's ledger as one compares the two systems, one cannot imagine such a thing happening here, not in one granting round and not without consultation.

The technical complexity of the film and live music event the following day taxed even the resources of the Muziekgebouw. Unfamiliar with the setup in the hall, we couldn't know until we got into the space precisely how the synch up with films would work, and myriad other details. What brought it all together was a marathon technical and dress rehearsal, Greg Oh's brilliance as conductor, and, by Day 6 of non-stop rehearsing and performing, the musicians' stamina. Terrifying moments awaited, though - the click track didn't work for the first piece, and in the last, the film started rolling before the musicians were ready. Works dealt with themes of the sea as the Pacific Ocean and the North Sea were juxtaposed on a split screen; the mutual invasion of the human and natural worlds as represented by clips from old movies intercut with highly processed images of birds and bats in flight; a poignant view of the loss of connection with water in Toronto's urban environment; trees in Parc Mont Royal in Montreal, with music improvised by violinist Malcolm Goldstein; and an aging gangster's paranoid delusions, near death experience and revival through highly unconventional means (means which have prompted the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival to give the work and our concert this Tuesday an X rating - you'll just have to come and see it in April at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto.)

Previously in the week the festival included late night screenings, on Tuesday and Wednesday night, of Canadian and Dutch short films. Some remarkable works were presented to a small but enthusiastic audience. On Saturday the festival concluded with two afternoon literary sessions: the first, moderated by Canadian author Lewis De Soto, was a rousing discussion on the theme of the past in contemporary literature of Holland and Canada; the second, moderated by CBC host Eleanor Wachtel on the subject of immigration will be broadcast at a later date on the CBC's Writers and Company.

SHIFT now gathers itself for the second iteration in Toronto, February 25 - March 3. But immediately at hand is a last concert, at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, in a remarkable tour.

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SHIFTing into gear...

We're now half-way through our European tour and I'm happy to report that all has been moving relatively smoothly.  During what felt like a whirlwind tour of Aberdeen (and its pubs), the ensemble performed as part of the Sound Festival at Cowdry Hall and followed up with a workshop at Aberdeen University.  Given jet lag, a faulty wake-up call system at the hotel, a bit of a scramble with percussion and reading week, both performance and workshop went well even if they were somewhat poorly attended.  The performance earned a positive review - we'll post that as soon as we can.

Once in Amsterdam the ensemble immediately headed into a heavy rehearsal schedule.  We arrived on the 15th and rehearsed that evening; the next day we were off to Den Bosch for November Music.  The 16th was their "Music Tour" day - 14 venues around Den Bosch were hosting new music events...kind of like a new music fringe festival.  We performed two short sets in the small hall at the Verkadefabriek, a great building dedicated to a variety of arts (impressive, given the town's population of 200,000 or so).  We'll have a recording of the concerts in January and will be sure to post it online.

Since the 17th the ensemble has been rehearsing all day, every day, with and without the Ives Ensembles and a variety of composers.  The music is challenging and the timelines are tight but it is all coming together - tonight is the performance with the Ives Ensemble.  The Muziekgebouw is a stunning building - all wood and glass, lots of natural light - and they have been fantastic hosts.  The main concert hall is completely flexible - seating can be added or removed as required, raised to be level with the stage or tiered - and sounds excellent. SHIFT officially started on Tuesday; performances by ASKO|Schonberg (November 18) and Quatuor Bozzini (November 19) went well, and the late-night film screenings worked well in the BAMZaal, the multi-purpose smaller hall.

We'll post another update in the next few days.  Until then, here are some photos from the tour so far...

Josh Grossman
Festival Coordinator
Continuum Contemporary Music

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Artistic Director's Message

What are the reasons for mounting an arts festival focusing on two countries? Perhaps the state of the arts in each place - a particular compatibility or correspondence; or an historical relationship to which the arts provide embellishment; or it could be programming opportunities arising from stark contrast. In the case of SHIFT, it is all three.

Canada and the Netherlands enjoy a bond first created by the part Canada played in the liberation of the Netherlands at the close of the Second World War, a bond deepened by Dutch emigration to Canada after the war - more Dutch chose Canada for their new home than went to all other countries combined. Other facts crystallize into myth and cliche: the temporary ceding of an Ottawa hospital ward to the Netherlands during the war so that Princess Margriet would be born Dutch; the 5,000 Dutch "liberation babies" fathered by Canadian soldiers; the 100,000 tulip bulbs sent by Queen Juliana to Ottawa after the war in thanks, with thousands sent each year after. The enduring connections formed by post-WWII migration are seen in Canadian telephone books, obituary pages, business names, specialty food shops, and in Dutch Reformed Churches dotting the countryside. The connection is obvious, too, to any Canadian who spends any time in the Netherlands, every day encountering people with a relative in Canada, often in a remote and wild place.

The Netherlands is small, rich in human history, and still comparatively uniform in makeup; Canada is large, young as a modern state, and diverse in its population. In these rather obvious factors the countries are diametrically opposed, and to an expatriate - a privilege I experienced on and off over seven years - the contrast is a head-swiveling, breathtaking experience that can provoke hyperactive theorizing. But a base of common outlook and perception prevents total disorientation and makes comparison possible. Beyond these, there is the less tangible but powerfully felt affinity.

This festival of music, film and literature goes beyond the indisputable value of creating and disseminating new work. The genesis of SHIFT is to be found in my fifteen month research residency with Gaudeamus in 2005-06, Jan Wolff's vision and his love of Canada, Henk Heuvelman's support, Jarko Aiken's determination to see the project through - personal connections, commitment and predilections trumping sociological abstractions. In the end, art provides its audience with a personal experience of work resulting from the personal processes of artists, works emerging out of one sociological context and received in another.

SHIFT underscores correspondences and divergences between the Netherlands and Canada in premieres, international collaborations, panel discussions, screenings and performance of existing works, programmed through grand collaboration by Geoffrey Taylor of the International Festival of Authors; Scott Miller Berry and Pablo De Ocampo of The Images Festival; Arjon Dunnewind of Impakt; Willem Hering of AskoSchonberg; John Snijders of Ives Ensemble. With the extraordinary commitment and support of Muziek Centrum Nederland and the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ and coordinating efforts of Josh Grossman in Canada and Martine Melenhorst at the Muziekgebouw, these collaborations have created not only festivals in Amsterdam and Toronto but an artistic conduit that will continue to form and feed this international relationship.

Jennifer Waring
Artistic Director

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