Sun Times staff
Long delayed and much anticipated, Manitoulin premiers Saturday night as part of the Georgian Bay Symphony’s 40th anniversary season finale.
Richard Mascall’s newest composition relies on what he’s learned about First Nations culture and music, and on a simple pentatonic melody he first played with in 1998.
A decade later, Mascall rediscovered that still-undeveloped phrase as he researched First Nations music and culture. It was ideally suited for new work during his three-year tenure as the local orchestra’s composer in residence.
At GBS director John Barnum’s request, Mascall was planning music which would reflect First Nations traditions.
“I wasn’t that keen on the idea at first because I didn’t know a thing about native culture,” Mascall said this week. “As I immersed myself in this stuff, I became really intrigued.”
He listened to native music, spent time drumming on Sunday afternoons with Thunder Timberwolf and his M’Wikwedong drummers. That interest led, four years later, to Timberwolf honouring Mascall with his own spirit name Singing Beaver on Water. His research brought him also to the Woodlands School of painting, founded by Ojibway artist Norval Morrisseau, which directly influenced Manitoulin.
That signature work, among Mascall’s compositions influenced by native culture from that residency, premiers at OSCVI with the GBS Saturday. A slightly longer version is scheduled for two performances next month with Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
Saturday’s GBS concert, dubbed The Russian Spectacular, also includes Owen Soundraised pianist Kati Gleiser as soloist, Sergei Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony Number 5, his best-known and frequently performed work.
Gleiser has a long history with the GBS. Currently a doctoral candidate in piano performance at Indiana University, she has performed as a soloist with the GBS and other orchestras in the past and has won national awards for her music.
Many of the orchestra’s former section leaders will return to boost the string section for the 40th anniversary concert. That’s ideal for Manitoulin, said Mascall, who initially intended it would be performed by both the Huronia Symphony and the GBS.
“It’s perfect. It’s for a big, big orchestra and this is the perfect situation for it,” he said. “I would say that Saturday night you will see the best Georgian Bay Symphony ever” with the return of so many former leaders.
The 10-minute overture Manitoulin’s theme flows from the idea of shamanic transformation, the widely held belief among aboriginal cultures around the world that their spirit or medicine men shift shapes to become animals.
Mascall’s direct inspiration was a series of Morrisseau’s paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario collectively entitled Shaman Transforms into Thunderbird.
With it’s repetition and gradual morphing of musical motifs, Manitoulin is unlike anything Mascall has created in his more than 20 years composing, but is firmly within the post-minimalist style he pursues.
Two themes eventually converge. It starts lively, with a boisterous, upbeat pentatonic section, then becomes tranquil.
“A melody appears which I kind of think of as a voice from across the millennia. It’s like the voice of the ancestors trying to reach us today,” Mascall said.
The composer sits at the piano in his studio at home in Leith. Printed sheet music and handwritten music notes are stacked up around the space. Manitoulin’s latest revisions are up on the computer screen.
There’s a rain stick in a corner and a print by Manitoulin artist Brad Kiwenzie on the wall for inspiration, with the eagle feather he received along with his spirit name resting along the top of its frame.
“I’ve taken this all pretty seriously in terms of just trying to learn as much as I can about the culture and the music and the art, so what I’m doing is authentic,” he said.
Manitoulin’s energetic and tranquil sections alternate, transforming each time until they coexist and converge to become the Thunderbird Transformation Dance.
“That’s the piece. Everything else to that point is mere introduction and it’s the same theme I came up with in 1998,” Mascall said. “The orchestra speeds up into a frenzy and there are moments of improvisation and a sort of chaos and then suddenly at the dramatic moment it transforms into a bird and flies away.”
The composer trills two semi-tones on the piano to illustrate.
This new piece is not only musically unusual for Mascall, it’s creation happened very differently. He had an idea, with no clear idea how to get to it.
“It’s been more for me like an archeological dig than an intentional act of creation,” he said. “It’s almost like the piece has revealed itself to me the more I worked at.”
He “punched in” hundreds of minutes of music to finally distill into Manitoulin’s 10-minute shape.
“It’s been quite a journey.”
Mascall’s first composition with First Nations influences was Giizhigoong, which means In The Sky World. It was done during his second year as resident GBS composer, a joint GBS commission with the City of Owen Sound. The fanfare for brass septet and native drumming group opened the city’s sesquicentennial concert festivities, then introduced fireworks.
Seven years later, Mascall has composed much new music, as well as many arrangements specifically for the local orchestra and a book of orchestral arrangements to accompany the songs of Larry Jensen.
He is a violinist with the symphony, launched and still leads the Georgian Bay Youth Orchestra, has taught hundreds of students at his studio and through schools, hosted a classical radio show and has for six years offered an introductory explanation of the music ahead of each symphony concert.
“All these things have come about as a result of that residency,” Mascall said.
He credits Barnum with that idea and for the encouragement to compose with First Nations culture in mind. He credits also the late Ed Bartlett, who gave him a violin and urged him to “make it your business to look after the youth musically and everything else will fall into place.”
In addition to the premier Saturday and VSO performances of Manitoulin next month, an earlier Mascall composition is also in the national spotlight. Violinist Mark Djokic’s March performance in Halifax of all five movements of the difficult Violin Sonata aired two weeks ago on CBC radio’s national program The Signal. Here’s a link to that: http://music.cbc.ca/#/concerts/ Mark-Djokic-in-recital- 2012-03-11.
Djokic has performed two movements all across the country at 30 cities over the last two years. Mark Fewer, the juno-winning violinist for contemporary jazz this year, and artistic director of the local Sweetwater Music Festival, will record the first movement, Labyrinth, next month as part of a Naxos CD featuring Canadian composers.
“There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on. I’m curious as to where it will all lead,” Mascall said. “I’m kind of waiting for the universe to unveil the next opportunity.”
On the eve of Manitoulin’s premier, Mascall has mixed feelings.
“It’s kind of terrifying,” he said. “Premiers are not pleasurable experiences.”
But since Mascall also plays violin with the GBS and has the association over the years, there’s been an opportunity to fine tune the composition.
He’s too close to it now, “a bit sick of it” at this stage. He’s lost objectivity and is unsure what to expect from the premier. It’s the kind of piece he knows won’t satisfy some people. Others have already offered hearty congratulations based on rehearsal previews.
“I guess if you’ve done your job, you should get a strong reaction, good or bad,” he said. “The worst would be indifference, because then you’ve really failed.”