The Turning Point Ensemble is a new Vancouver chamber ensemble organized in 2001 by trombonist Jeremy Berkman and composer/conductor Owen Underhill. Its first concert debuted in January 2003 on Vancouver's Music in the Morning concert series, featuring the premiere of Underhill's The Widening Gyre.
The Ensemble's mandate is to broaden the appreciation and understanding of concert music of earlier times with the music of today.
In last Tuesday's concert at VECC, the group did precisely that, performing the music of two Czech composers of the 20th century, Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) and Rudolf Komorous (b. 1932).
Schulhoff was a Czech Jew, a child prodigy recommended by Dvorak and later studied composition with Reger.
At the end of the First World War, many Czech artists including himself established connections with Western Europe, particularly Paris and Berlin. Schulhoff moved to Berlin where he was influenced by the dada movement, jazz, expressionism and atonality.
These influences were evident in Schulhoff's Boston (from Partita), a two-minute piece composed in 1920, and Tango (from Cinq Études de Jazz), another two-minute piece composed in 1926, performed as solo piano pieces by Jane Hayes, at the start of the programme.
At the end of 1923, recession took hold of Germany and prejudice against foreigners forced Schulhoff to return to his native Prague. He was a successful concert pianist performing regularly for major radio stations in Europe, composing a wide range of music including serious modernist chamber music, jazz, Slavonic folklore in the Janacek tradition, ballet and Broadway-style music. He played jazz for the avant-garde Free Theatre of Jaroslav Jezek, and later was employed as a radio pianist in Ostrava.
After the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, he attempted to emigrate West, but was caught and imprisoned in Prague and later deported to a concentration camp in Wulzburg, Germany. He died eight months later of tuberculosis.
The Ensemble played three other compositions of Schulhoff: Sextet (1924), a 24-minute composition, with two violas, two violins, and two celli, and four movements: allegro risoluto, tranquillo, burlesca and molto adagio; a three-minute jazz-influenced piece, The Syncopated Peter (1934), making its North American Premiere, performed by trombonist Jeremy Berkman and pianist Jane Hayes, to the delight of the audience; Kassandra (1934), a three-minute piece influenced by the foxtrot and the shimmy, giving it a circus-like ambience with a melange of the flute, oboe, trumpet, harmonium, percussion, violin, viola and double bass. This piece also made its North American Premiere at VECC last Tuesday.
Komorous is one of Canada's most important composers. He taught at Simon
Frasr University and the University of Victoria, and presently lives in
Victoria. He was the principal basoonist in the Prague Opera Orchestra and
a performer/composer of the Czech avant-garde movement. After the Russian
invasion of Czechoslovakia in Agust 1968, Komorous, who was in Germany at
that time, didn't return to Prague. He immigrated to Canada instead, and
has lived here the past 34 years.
He was involved in the Czech avant-garde circle known as the "Smidra Group" in the 50s and 60s; he also founded Musica Viva Pragensis regarded as one of Europe's leading music ensembles.
He taught bassoon at the Beijing Academy and the Central Conservatory of Music, and is a scholar of Chinese poetry and the Japanese Noh Theatre. This is evident in the Turning Point's rendition of the eight-minute piece Tango composed in 1986 and subtitled Seven Autumn Haiku and Three Winter Tanka. This composition was interesting because it combined traditional instruments with modern ones: tenor recorder, alto flute, alto melodica, bass mouth harmonica, guitar, vibraphone, electric piano, percussion, violin, and electric bass guitar.
Ritrato di Laura Battiferi (1989), an 11-minute piece (violins, viola and celli), was inspired by the Agnolo Bonzino portrait of an internationally famous poetess who maintained contacts with artists of her day including Michelangelo. In an interview with Owen Underhill, when asked why he composed a piece dedicated to this obscure poetess, Komorous commented: "I was stunned by her achievement, especially how highly she was regarded by the top artists of her time...but only a few specialists know about her. It's incredible that a person of her calibre can disappear in time without a trace."
Strange Sphere (2003), making its World Premiere, is his latest work, and was composed at the request of the Ensemble. Komorous was inspired by the music of Thelonius Monk in this four-minute piece.
The last piece performed by the Ensemble was Lurid Bride (2000), a 25-minute composition with eleven titles. This was originally performed at the Vancouver New Music Festival in 2000. The titles had names such as "Morgan le Fay", "Solferino Bridle", "Tagasode" and so on. When asked what these titles meant, he commented that they were remnants of actual events inspired by his friend, Mikulas Medek, a painter.
The Ensemble played well, but I think, in this day and age, a two-hour show (including intermission) is long enough. The show was a bit too long (two hours and a half). All in all, it's good to have another Ensemble in Vancouver. I believe Vancouver has the most Chamber Music companies in all of Canada, and I wish the group all the best in their future endeavours.
© 2003, Ed Farolan