Review: NACO, Josefowicz, Carneiro deliver thrilling performance of new music

Leila Josefowicz. Photo: Chris Lee

A program of virtuosic symphonic compositions all written within the last 15 years, performed by a fierce champion of new music and with a powerhouse woman on the podium? Yes please, and may we have some more?

Unfortunately, not everyone in Ottawa is of this opinion yet, judging from the poor attendance at Thursday evening’s NACO 21st-century program with soloist Leila Josefowicz and Portuguese guest conductor Joana Carneiro. It’s a shame, since NACO delivered one of its nerviest, most thrilling performances of the entire season.

Josefowicz delivered a masterful performance of Thomas Adès’ 2005 Violin Concerto. Her playing was by turns ardent and playful by turns, with a sleek, chromium gleam to her sound. Josefowicz imbued the lilting, bluesy lines of the last movement had a drawling, sweet-tea grace, while the first movement crackled with ferocious vitality.

Like Josefowicz, Carneiro is a persuasive and passionate advocate for new music, with a firm, forceful,  intensely energetic style that never becomes frantic or loses its sharp clarity.

The first half had opened with Rewind by English composer Anna Clyne. Written in 2005 when Clyne was just 24, the piece originally featured a tape part, which was omitted in the version performed by NACO. Perhaps the original holds together better, but underneath its boisterous clamour the piece felt predictable and formulaic, marked with the common young composer stamp of difficulty for no emotional or intellectual payoff.

Woman of the Apocalypse, a half-hour long 2012 tone poem by Scottish composer James MacMillan inspired by the Book of Revelations, was another story. Romantic in its ambitious scope, decadent orchestration and vivid narration–if not in style–this glorious work left me devastated, astonished, almost weeping at its prismatic beauty and imaginative reach. Macmillan’s writing is extraordinarily accomplished but never draws attention to its technical and theoretical foundations. There is something tactile in his music, shimmering and monumental, that brings to mind the strange, sensual, mystical art of the Symbolist painter Odilon Redon. Woman of the Apocalypse was so good that as soon as it was over I immediately wanted to hear the whole thing again.

The concert repeats in a Casual Friday format on June 7, minus the Clyne piece. Here’s hoping the turnout will be more worthy of the music making.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.