From left to right: Ramsey Sadaka, Thomas Beckman, Carolyn Quick, Jaelem Bhate, Jocelyn Morlock, Matthieu Foresi, William Rowson, D.I. Danny Choi. Photo credit: Matthew Baird, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

On Monday, February 18, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Assistant Conductor William Rowson, and Composer-in-Residence Jocelyn Morlock presented the 2018 Jean Coulthard Readings. Named in honour of one of BC’s most beloved composers, the annual Jean Coulthard Readings give emerging BC composers an invaluable opportunity to have their work read by a professional orchestra. The three-hour session offered a compelling look at some of the exceptional work being done by emerging composers who are living, studying, and creating music in British Columbia. This year’s Jean Coulthard Readings included pieces written by six composers aged from 12 to their mid-thirties. All six scores demonstrated a remarkable technical command of orchestral writing, with each composer in his or her own way showing a great sensibility for instrumental colour, timbre, and texture, and also for form and structure.

It was particularly interesting to note the diverse sources of inspiration for the six pieces. Two of them, A Battle Story by D.I. Danny Choi, and Parade of War by Thomas Beckman, provided vivid illustrations of scenes of armed conflict, with brass fanfares, martial themes and triumphant chorales. Matthieu Foresi‘s The Hall of Fear, according to the composer’s program note, “is a piece intended to drive fear and scariness into any listener who listens to it”. The score’s dark and softly menacing sonorities, making full use of the orchestra’s lower registers, surely accomplished this goal. It should be noted that all present were astonished to learn that Matthieu is only 12 years old, and despite his tender age, already has a number of professional performances of his music to his credit.

Two of the works were inspired by natural phenomena. Carolyn Quick‘s Through the Haze depicted the devastating wildfires that swept the United States in the summer of 2017. Despite the devastating losses caused by these fires, Quick attempted to find a measure of peace and hope through her delicate and sensitive use of orchestration, which evoked beams of sunlight shining through the dense smoke. Jaelem Bhate‘s Aura, according to the composer’s note, “is a short fanfare which considers the nature of the Aurora Borealis, and the natural phenomenon’s meaning to different cultures.” The piece showed off the composer’s enviable skill confidence in writing for orchestra. Bhate has clearly already found his own very personal and highly effective voice.

The session concluded with a reading of Ramsey Sadaka‘s Andromeda Fantasy, a work inspired by Odilon Redon’s early-20th Century painting, Andromeda. In his notes, the composer writes that he was profoundly impacted by Redon’s painting, which is an impressionistic interpretation of the ancient Greek myth of an Aethiopian princess who was sentenced to be sacrificed to a sea monster in atonement for her mother Cassiopeia’s boastfulness. Sadaka’s work captured brilliantly the tender melancholy of the scene through gently lilting rocking themes and muted instrumental colours. The restrained orchestration, without brass instruments except for two horns, made particularly effective use of simple, spare textures, at times pared down to almost heartbreakingly gorgeous chamber music for a few solo string players.

One could not help but be impressed by these emerging composers, and we very much look forward to hearing more from each of them. The future of composition in British Columbia is indeed bright. Congratulations to the participants, and to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for providing this invaluable program each year!