Freelance reporter Sara Krahn reports on the opening night of the strange and fantastic art-house that is the Winnipeg New Music Festival.

 The Winnipeg New Music Festival fired off its opening program on Saturday night, giving audience members enough reason to by festival passes. The music was eclectic, provocative, beautiful, and a little bit wacky – everything we've come to expect from the WNMF.

Saturday night's program featured the world's most esteemed avant garde ensemble, The Arditti Quartet, along with the WSO performing works by Andrew Norman, Wolfgang Rihm, Sarah Neufeld of Arcade Fire and George Friedrich Haas. "It is a thrill to have this internationally renowned quartet here in Winnipeg," said the WSO's music director Alexander Mickelthwate. "Their playing dazzles with sheer virtuosity and artistry."

The award-winning Arditti Quartet is led by British violinist Irvine Arditti, with Lucas Fels, Ashot Sarkissjan and Ralf Ehlers. These four musicians are paradigm crusaders of contemporary classical music, having performed and recorded most of the major 20th century repertoire for string quartet. Many prominent composers have worked closely the ensemble, including Elliott Carter, John Cage, Harrison Birtwistle and Wolfgang Rihm.

Rihm's Dithyrambe, written especially for the quartet, was performed last night with the WSO. In his program notes, Rihm describes the part for string quartet as representing "a beast with four heads" – the surrounding orchestra acts as a "cage". The piece worked with contrasting the ideas of "madness" and "sanity", which manifested itself in the contrast of the orchestra's subdued bowing against the supercharged quartet lines. The vicious string lines culminated in a deafening squeal, shared on a single line by the two violins and viola. If nails on a chalkboard could ever sound engaging and interesting, this is how they would sound. The work's ending was especially riveting, as what was almost an unbearable amount of vicious noise dissipated into nothing. Witnessing the Arditti Quartet in performance was an intensely visceral and electrifying experience. There is absolutely nothing static about the way these musicians perform.

Preceding Rihm's work was the Canadian Premiere of Andrew Norman's Unstuck. Norman's piece was a meditation on writer's block, the result of a "breakthrough realization" that "the lack of coherence in my ideas was to be embraced and explored, not overcome." The work was strange but exciting. It was brassy with raunchy percussive bits, and strikingly beautiful, particularly as its brazenness gave way to an ethereal cello line, played by Yuri Hooker.

Sarah Neufeld's Breathing Black Ground featured a mesmerizing solo violin performance by Gwen Hoebig. The solo line moved in perpetual motion over the sonic drone of the orchestra, offering a mellow oasis in the midst of the night's eclecticism. That said it felt more like an extended intro than a feature work. The music was over before had even begun.

The WSO closed the night with a work by composer-in-demand Georg Friedrich Haas. Traum in des Sommers Nacht was a reincarnation of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture using the 12 tone row. Haas explained that he used "elements from Mendelssohn's own compositions" in order to revive our understanding of Mendelssohn as a forward-thinking composer of sound color. The piece works to "open our ears and minds to a new dimension of Mendelssohn."

This is exactly the kind of experience concert-goers hope to get out of the Winnipeg New Music Festival - the experience of music in new dimensions. Whether it's the reinvention of music from the past or an oasis of sound in a cluttered, allusion-rich environment, the Festival promises an experience of music like you've never heard it before.

The Winnipeg New Music Festival runs from January 31st until February 6th. Upcoming program highlights include a tribute to 20th century composer James Tenney; the Quay Brothers in collaboration with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen; and Winnipeg's own Andrew Balfour debuts a work inspired by the Residential School legacy.

Tickets are available at the WSO Box Office and all Ticketmaster outlets.


Sara Krahn is a freelance contributor for Classic 107.  She is a music student at Canadian Mennonite University.