The only Canadian composers Bramwell Tovey knew before he became the WSO’s music director in 1989 were R. Murray Schafer and Claude Vivier. When Bramwell left the WSO in 2001, it is safe to say that no conductor had a more widespread knowledge of Canadian music than him, former WSO pioneering music director Victor Feldbrill notwithstanding.
When it came to attacking a musical task with enthusiasm and enterprise, no one was better at galvanizing his forces than Bramwell. Similarly energized was the WSO’s first composer-in-residence Glenn Buhr. Each had the foresight to realize that a festival devoted entirely to New Music required both a visionary composer in that position to curate an impossibly complex task, and a driving, fast-learning conductor to bring it off. In 1992 the New Music Festival (NMF) was born and it has never looked back.
To test the waters, the Festival did a dry run in 1991 with John Adams’s Harmonielehre on one of the programs. Since the music hadn’t yet been published, the orchestra performed it using handwritten manuscript. Ten years later when Bramwell arrived in Vancouver, he got a surprise call from the composer who was in town for a premiere. Adams effused about a cassette tape his publisher sent of that WSO performance, claiming it was the best he had heard at the time. The piece has become a certifiable contemporary classic.
In 1992 the Festival started inviting major-name guest composers to appear in person while the week featured their music. American John Corigliano was the first in the new title of “Distinguished Guest Composer.” In 2006 John recalled the WSO’s performance of his Symphony No. 1 (another now-certifiable classic) as “definitive” and was stunned with the devotion of the musicians who, to a person, stayed in their seats to hear the composer’s comments well after the dress rehearsal ended.
The list of composers that came to subsequent festivals reads like a who’s who of contemporary music. We met, questioned, had a drink with, and, for brief but memorable moments, lived in the lives of these composer-luminaries who are and will further be prominent entries in the music history books of today and tomorrow:
Arvo Pärt, Gavin Bryars, Steve Reich, Aaron Kernis, Louis Andriessen, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Christopher Rouse, David Del Tredici, HK Gruber and Bright Sheng, among many others. Canadian composers – like John Estacio whose star was about to rise soon after his music was heard at the Festival – were no less prominent and revealed their music to the most receptive ears Winnipeg had ever seen, the bleacher crowd especially.
The music didn’t always click. But one recalls Glenn Gould, who spoke about and knew well “the occupational hazards of a highly subjective profession.” Our NMF role as listeners was to celebrate just that, and we responded in kind.
Though prominently international in scope and focus, the NMF happens in Canada, so it is no coincidence that the most performed Canadian composer at the NMF has been R. Murray Schafer, with 33 performances of 23 of his works from 1992 to the present. If there is a more compelling presence in the entire history of Canadian music, one is hard-pressed to name another name. And if our goal is to stamp the equivalent title on an international platform for the music of today, the New Music Festival has certainly earned its stripes.