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Intersections – and how it changed everything

This week at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony we celebrate the first 5 years of our Intersections series.  It all started when I got the job there.  I wanted to find a place for artists who didn’t fit into a particular musical category — people like violinist/fiddler Gilles Apap, composer/DJ Mason Bates, Western/Indian musician Suba Sankaran and others.  But it quickly became a home for people who wanted to try something with orchestra: saxophonists, scientists, chefs, yogis, videographers, you name it.  It became a place where an orchestra can do anything, and by my estimation, one of the coolest, riskiest endeavors attempted by any orchestra in North America.

From the beginning, people took notice.  A lot of our shows were played at Koerner Hall in Toronto, thanks to the good faith and adventurous spirit of Mervon Mehta.  I’ll never forget when our music/neuroscience show with Daniel Levitin, Beethoven and Your Brain, sold out there a week in advance.  It made me feel like this itch I had to put orchestra in different “frames” also was there in our audience.  It confirmed my belief that orchestra don’t exist in a vacuum, but in the world of thought, emotion, and ideas.  I’m excited that our collaboration with the Institute for Quantum Computing, Quantum: Music at the Frontier of Science also has legs.  We performed it at the opening of their new Quantum Nano Centre, for the Banff Forum, and will bring it to the Indianapolis Symphony this spring, with more performances to come.

Intersections has also had an effect on my career beyond KW.  It seems like more and more, the programs I’m asked to conduct include living composers and programs that go beyond the normal “safe” boundaries.  This is perfectly fine with me. Like any conductor I spend most of my time studying Beethoven and Brahms, and carrying on the great tradition associated with these composers and work. But being able to put them in a new context is a way to give them new life for new audiences.  It’s great to be gaining the trust of other orchestras and being able to expand the work I started in KW in places like San Francisco, North Carolina, Indianapolis, and elsewhere.

Some of my favorite souvenirs of this process are our commissions.  Invariably, they’re from unusual people or crazy pieces from established composers.  Our first commission was by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, and his For Heart, Breath, and Orchestra was on our first CD.  It was weird and touching, with the musicians playing off of Richie’s music but also relying on their own breath and heartbeats (they wore stethoscopes).  We followed with two orchestral commissions by the amazing Dan Deacon, who writes hyperfun-nerdgasm dance music, but also is linked to the American Experimental tradition, from Nancarrow to Cage to Zappa.  It was a huge stretch for him to translate his ideas to orchestra, and included an apology to our librarian in a program note, but it moved him forward as a musician and blew our audience’s mind.  Nicole Lizée is one of Canada’s most exciting composers, and it was fun to give her a space to write something wild.  The result was 2012: Concerto for Power Trio and Orchestra (Fantasia on Themes by Rush). I mean, how Canadian is that?  Nicky describes the music as “Melting Rush,” which about sums it up.  But it also pushed music forward, with the most difficult and stunning drumset notation I have ever seen (played by the remarkable Ben Reimer), and virtuosic combinations of guitar, bass, drums, and orchestra that I had never heard before.

To celebrate this series, we’re playing the Dan Deacon and Lizée/Rush pieces again this week, along with music of Bryce Dessner and Andrew Creegan, Thursday and Friday at the Conrad Centre for the Performing Arts in KW, and Saturday at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto.  Come and hear this!  Dan, Nicky, and Andy Creegan will be there! This is an orchestra putting itself out there and trying something new, in a way that so many are afraid to.  So be here. Walk, bike, drive, fly.  Celebrate Intersections with us!