This year’s edition of the Montréal New Music Festival was set to go out with a bang of celebrity and spectacle. In conjunction with the Montréal Museum of Fine Art’s current exhibition Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism, the festival’s final concert featured music inspired by non-Western musical traditions. The concert was even followed by an after party with a tea salon, belly dancers and a DJ spinning “Oriental rhythms”. There seems to be something problematic about throwing around the word Orientalism in the context of modern music, as the term has come to represent a distorted and patronizing view of non-Western cultures. However, this concert was actually centred on the man of the evening: Philip Glass. With the concert sold out days in advance, the crowds flocked to see this living legend in person. Despite an overwhelmingly positive response from the audience, I couldn’t help but feel that the event unearthed many of the perennial questions plaguing classical music today.

Kent Nagano © Benjamin Ealovega
Kent Nagano
© Benjamin Ealovega

Glass is, of course, known for fathering the Minimalist movement of the Sixties along with Steve Reich. His work applies the rhythms and long, meditative durations of Indian traditions to a sleek, distinctly American style of composition. Glass has achieved much acclaim for his ensemble pieces, operas, and music for dance and theatre, as well as for the scores to films such as Koyaanisqatsi and The Hours. While his music has managed to package and sell a form of experimentalism to the masses, it also sparks debate about style versus substance.

Take, for example, Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra. It seems like an original concept, following in the footsteps of other 20th century composers by highlighting an instrument that traditionally plays a supportive role. However, upon listening, the technical problems of the work are immediately noticeable. The timpani were very reverberant in the hall, making it a challenge to distinguish which timpanist was playing what without the aid of visual cues. The issue of balance was also prevalent. Initially, the timpanists overtook the orchestra, though later in the work the orchestra overwhelmed the timpani, who seemed to regress to accompaniment status. Despite these challenges, the players approached the piece with virtuosity and a sense of excitement. Soloists Andrei Malashenko and Hugues Tremblay had a very physical presence, executing challenging sequences of hits over many timpani and exploring extended techniques in the cadenza. The orchestra also captured the spirit of the work, from the bright American optimism of the first movement to the dance-like Latin rhythms of the third movement.

Other pieces on the concert focused more directly on the influence of non-Western music traditions. There was the world première of Vers ou l’oiseau migrera? by Iranian-Canadian composer Kiya Tabassian, a short orchestral work featuring a singer and the traditional kanun. The piece had a rolling intensity, the tension pulling the work forward. This was followed by Jamshied Sharifi’s arrangement of the Persian pop song “My Beloved Maryam” for orchestra. The arrangement had a distinctly neo-Romantic quality with a brass chorale and a solitary oboe solo. Here, folk singing techniques were arranged in a very traditional Classical setting. Dukas’ La Péri, next on the program, seemed to be a safe choice. Full of lush harmonies and indulgent sweeps, this ballet music tells a story set in a magical, exotic Iranian kingdom. The orchestra was expressive and powerful, with exceptional brass playing in the opening fanfare. However, it seemed strange to have more time spent on a piece by a 19th century composer who could only dream of the East than on the composers of Iranian descent.

With the final piece of the night came what everyone was waiting for – an appearance by Glass at the piano to perform his work Mad Rush. The piece is distinctly Minimalist in its improvisatory quality, limited harmonies and use of repetition. I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about the work. At times I found the piece to be meditative and calming, with even a shift of a single note creating a harmonic impact. At other times, I had the feeling a voiceover might kick in and try to sell me a luxury car.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that the audience also felt this struggle. In fact, the crowd jumped to their feet to give Glass a standing ovation for his solo performance. There is nothing wrong with simple music, as Avro Pärt has shown us. But what does it mean for composers who do not conform to the sound worlds favoured by the average concert-goer? At the end of the day, orchestras want to have sell-out concerts and audiences speak with their patronage. I can only hope that attempts to please the masses do not cut out opportunities for challenging and provocative art.