Composed of voracious curiosity – Sept. 7, 2011

Composed of voracious curiosity
IgNITE! composers workshop
Aventa Ensemble
Bill Linwood, conductor
Helen Pridmore, soprano
Sept. 7, 2011 Victoria, BC
By Kevin Bazzana
The Victoria Times Colonist

The English composer and pianist Michael Finnissy, making his first visit to Western Canada, recently arrived in Victoria and, over a five-day period beginning Saturday afternoon, will be the subject of a de facto mini-festival at the University of Victoria’s School of Music. He will participate in two concerts of the Aventa Ensemble, offer a recital of his piano music, and give a public lecture, while also working with composition students.

Born in London in 1946 and educated at the Royal College of Music, Finnissy has had a long association with academia (since 1999, as a professor at Southampton University) while maintaining a very prolific composing career. Aventa’s artistic director, Bill Linwood, calls him “one of the greats,” an “unbelievably influential” musician with a passionate international following.

Finnissy’s diverse output comprises more than 325 works – solo-instrumental, chamber, orchestral, solo-vocal, choral, theatrical – and he draws inspiration and material from an immense range of musical sources: folk music, jazz, American popular music and the whole Western classical heritage from Gregorian chant to contemporary idioms. He is also influenced by visual art, film and photography, literature and dance, and often tackles political, religious, social and sexual themes in his music, embodying ideas directly related to his own life and thought and the world around him. “The man is fearless,” Linwood says.

Finnissy’s voracious curiosity and inclusivity yield music that is conspicuously eclectic and original, also highly dramatic, direct and powerfully expressive (whether it is frenetic or still, violent or spiritual). Though often dauntingly complex and technically challenging, his music is “beautifully written,” Linwood says – musicians love playing and singing it – and it “really draws you in, really reaches an audience.”

The two Aventa concerts are part of its annual IgNITE! Composer Workshop, which brings together young Canadian composers with established mentors who offer them advice on their careers and on works in progress. Finnissy is one of this year’s mentors, along with Christopher Butterfield, who teaches at UVic, and the Germanborn, Montreal-based Michael Oesterle, who is beginning a twoyear tenure as the Victoria Symphony’s composer-in-residence.

Works by all eight of this year’s participants (who include four recent UVic graduates and one current student) will be spread out over two programs, an informal “reading session” Saturday afternoon and a concert Sunday evening.

Three Finnissy pieces for small ensembles will also be performed: Shady Love (2001), which alludes to the Greek myth of Ganymede and Schubert’s song on that subject; Casual Nudity (2001), whose prominent percussion battery includes, in Finnissy’s words, “the rather lewd sounds made by a greasedup sink plunger;” and Mr. Punch (1979), a funny, “very graphic and brazen” take on the PunchandJudy show, with a part for “speaker” – here the soprano Helen Pridmore, from New Brunswick. (Finnissy likes quirky titles – witness Not envious of rabbits, Blancmange, Scotch Tape, Cozy Fanny’s Tootsies, That Ain’t Shit .)

Finnissy is a virtuoso pianist, and his many piano pieces (some of which he has recorded) range from miniatures to monumental cycles. He also enjoys making piano arrangements of others’ music, using them “to teach myself about different musics and different composers and cultures.” Among these works are four cycles: Gershwin Arrangements (1975-88), More Gershwin (1989-90), Folklore (1993-94), and Verdi Transcriptions (1972-2005). Some of these arrangements stick close to the originals; others are very free, idiosyncratic and ambitious, with Finnissy seeking to “re-inhabit” the music and make it unequivocally modern. (Don’t bother trying to hum along with his Verdi arrangements.)

For UVic’s Orion Series in Fine Arts, Finnissy will offer a piano recital on Monday evening, which will include selections from the Gershwin and Verdi cycles and from 23 Tangos (1962-2000), the tango embodying for him “the idea of eroticism, of human flirtation and sexual experience.”

Finnissy speaks of the plentiful and varied musical influences on his work as his own imaginary musical museum or “cabinet of curiosities,” in which all idioms and genres and repertoires coexist on an equal footing.

He will explore this fascinating idea on Wednesday afternoon, in his lecture, Writing anything and everything, which promises to shed light on his wildly multifarious output – even if, he warns, “it will not particularly appeal to those who like the idea of perfection and singularity in art.

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