Quebec’s first music festival since COVID-19 opened in Victoriaville

This three-day series of concerts, all indoors in three venues, is the first music festival to resume operations as the province begins to loosen up, noted festival manager and artistic director Michel Levasseur. The city of about 48,000 is 170 kilometres (106 miles) east of Montreal.

“None of our concerts are virtual,” said Levasseur with pride as he opened the first concert Friday night, an hour-long performance by singer-songwriter and composer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb at the town’s modern concert hall. The hall was half full, as public-health dictated empty seats so that spectators could keep two-metres from each other. Most of the 70 musicians live in Quebec.

In the opener, the Jerusalem-born Montreal resident offered a program of tone poems and meditations, several set to music around lyrics by children, backed by a quartet that included violist and vocalist Jennifer Thiessen and ace electric guitarist Bernard Falaise.

Gottlieb set the tone with her songs, some Hebrew, mostly English — a spiritual outreach that she said spoke to our need for flowers and joy in difficult times.

Highlights were her duets and harmonies with Thiessen, and in the second half the rhythmic spark ignited by Iranian-Canadian Hamin Honari, playing mainly the Tombak hand drum.

The most poignant moment came at the end when Gottlieb made an indirect but obvious reference to the bloody Israel-Hamas conflict as she called for the renewal of life-affirming possibilities for all humans — and for change. She intoned the words from a Moroccan prayer, and bathed in blue lights, her hands out-stretched, chanted, “Bring me all of your dreams, bring me all of your heart.”

The follow-up was a quartet of improvisers who presented an eclectic and engaging hour-long soundscape symphony at the town’s hockey coliseum, converted to concert stage:

René Lussier plucked and stroked his electric guitar and drew tonal sketches as he used a cello bow on an exploratory instrument called a daxophone – a thin hardwood strip that can sound like a human voice or a violin when the bow makes it vibrate. On both instruments we heard the grunts, growls, yelps, high-pitches, and occasional strumming as the others improvised.

Érick d’Orion on computer and electronics and Martin Tétreault on turntable and electronics provided an ever-present wall of varied sound while drummer Robbie Kuster injected the percussive punctuation. The result was a constructive collaboration, totally improvised but with a logical ebb and flow that succeeded in creating a solid and original work.

With the bar in the main hotel closed, the usual late evening hang was cancelled, but fans were fresh and alert for the next days’ concerts, the latest ending by 9 p.m. in keeping with Quebec’s 9:30 p.m. curfew.

Saturday was a day of tremendous contrasts, beginning quietly with Montreal pianist Eve Egoyan playing contemporary classical in the resplendent, 145-year-old St. Christophe church – the dream-like, somewhat melancholic Asking by Spanish composer Maria de Alvear, which gradually builds in intensity before ending quietly, and Turn by Danish composer Per Nørgård, a bright and harmonically rich piece.

GGRIL, the improvised music workshop based in Quebec’s Lower St. Laurent city of Rimouski, came on stage at the arena venue. A 16-member orchestra played several compositions in imaginative arrangements, with unexpected dynamics, varying degrees of harmonic complexity, chants, collective shouts, and an engaging ebb and flow. The group has worked on these pieces over several years and as electric bassist Éric Normand observed, they have “evolved.”

The late afternoon program featured a double bill: First off was the duo of Tamara Filyavitch on electronics and vocalist Maya Kuroki, electronics and electric guitar. Over a wall of electronic sounds, Kuroki engaged in vocal pyrotechnics and occasional pantomime as she chanted, the words difficult to discern but part of the soundscape. It was classic Victo, a one-of-a-kind show, original and imaginative.

Next was a duo called This quiet army X Away, combining electric guitarist Eric Quach and power drummer Michel Langevin, a founding member of the popular heavy metal band Voivod. Metal heads turned out for this event, and the drone-like guitar sounds and relentless drumming left a strong imprint although it did not challenge our ears.

The most innovative gig of the first two days was provided by the 14-member Growlers Choir, assembled and directed by Pierre-Luc Senécal – a heavy-metal choral group clad in black that carves out a collective sound based on guttural, cavernous, screeching vocals. The choir was accompanied by a pre-recorded track of electronic and percussive sounds.

The first piece called Dayking is based on a poem by Fortner Anderson, who read from its apocalyptic text, as the choir sang, with such lines as “waiting for an end, for deliverance.” In the second piece we heard the sound of choir members guzzling water, grunting, laughing, with controlled screams, as the recorded soundtrack provided a backdrop for the live chorale. The third piece featured a collective chant with calls to joy — and dread. An exhilarating experience.


Canadian-only musicians celebrate avant music in COVID-safe venues

VICTORIAVILLE, Que – From solo improv to composed original score for large ensemble, the revived Festival de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville offered an eclectic array of bold musical adventures on its third and final day.

Cancelled last year because of COVID-19, the 37th edition of this showcase for improvised and exploratory music went ahead with restrictions – mandatory masks, 12 concerts rather than the usual 20, no musicians or fans from outside Canada because of closed borders, and fewer seats, all reserved, to maintain a two-metre separation.

From the alter of the resplendent St. Christophe d’Arthabaska Church, trombonist Scott Thomson captivated his audience with a solo concert where he showcased the array of sounds that can be extracted from this versatile horn.

Thomson first improvised a melody ­— sliding notes, playing off the natural reverb when the sound bounces off the rounded ceiling above the altar, moulding a wah-wah sound, and exploring the horn’s other sonic possibilities. He played with various mutes to bend the sound or make the horn whisper, moan, groan, talk, sing, or even weep. He was having fun, in conversation with that horn, and giving the audience a terrific buzz. (Thomson is manager and artistic director of the annual Guelph Jazz Festival, planned for mid-September.)

In the mid-afternoon double bill, Alberta-based singer Kathleen Yearwood had to cancel for health reasons. Electric guitarist Bernard Falaise, a veteran of many avant groups, filled in with a solo. With an array of pedal-activated devices, he sounded like a small ensemble – ringing bells and going from high tones to bass sounds as he plucked his guitar sitting flat over his knees. He plucked and scraped, extracting a cornacopia of sounds from his axe before ending in a flurry of notes.

Falaise then joined up with Jean Martin (drums and electronics) and Pierre-Yves Martel (electric bass, steel lap guitar, electronics) for an engaging and varied improv session, starting minimally, then deepening and broadening, with a dreamscape evolving into a wall of sound, then fading out, and devolving into something less dense, with scattered single notes. Martel added melodic content when he switched to the steel lap guitar, the music propelled at one point by strong rhythm and counter-rhythms, a balanced and well-developed program of sonic explorations.

The Montreal-based Bozzini Quartet (violinists Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung, cellist Isabelle Bozzini, violist Stéphanie Bozzini), which includes local composers in its repertoire, played two new pieces, the first in four sections composed by bassist Nicolas Caloia. Alto saxophonist joined in for the second piece, by Jef Chippewa, a more varied and exploratory work. The improv session, with all six musicians, was more fun to observe and hear, an exciting excursion into the unknown that ventured from restrained exchanges and collaboration to outright displays of musical passion.

The final concert was in many ways a testimonial to the growth and continued vigor of experimental and improvised music in Quebec: In parallel with this festival, which began in 1983, the Montreal-based collective Ensemble SuperMusique was established by three women at a time when avant-garde music was male dominated. It was launched by Joane Hétu (alto sax, voice), Diane Labrosse, (sampler) and Danielle Palardy Roger (percussion, voice).

They were among the 16 musicians on stage to perform four new compositions that are part of Le fleuve, in tribute to the majestic St. Laurent River that flows through Quebec to the Atlantic Ocean. One piece featured prose declaring that empowering women could make the world a better place. Of the four compositions, saxophonist Jean Derome’s was the most musically rich and complex. The final work by Joane Hétu, which she directed and narrated, was her most accomplished in a long career of pushing musical boundaries — operatic in scope with unexpected instrumental flourishes and shifts, and a fitting end to this year’s impressive lineup.

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