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Musical frontiers open for Victoria conductor

Victoria conductor Bill Linwood is understandably scatterbrained as he describes his latest project on the phone from Toronto.
Victoria conductor Bill Linwood in rehearsal with Ensemble 1534.

Victoria conductor Bill Linwood is understandably scatterbrained as he describes his latest project on the phone from Toronto. Competing with the dark toot of a french horn in the background after a cross-country flight, and a seven-hour rehearsal of French contemporary composer Pierre Boulez, anyone would be.

But he’s also eager to talk about ensemble1534, the pan-Canadian new music group touted as having the potential to be “the voice and vanguard for new music in Canada and for Canada.” (New music being that undefinable beast encompassing contemporary classical, avant-garde and the like.)

“There’s never been anything that really brings musicians from across the country together in this kind of focused way, in regards to new music,” said Linwood, who is also the group’s artistic director.

The ensemble will call Ottawa home and had its debut performance Saturday night at the National Arts Centre. The members will gather three more times this year for performances.

While Canada is home to several regional new music ensembles, there was a void when it came to a national group at this level, he said. Its ultimate goal is to bring together music and musicians from across the country and present them alongside international works — on both Canadian and international stages.

“How can we show that [Canadian] music is actually world-class and should be on a world stage? How do we show that, so that we don’t say it’s, ‘;just Canadian?’ That’s total nonsense,” Linwood said.

Pairing Canadian and international works is one way the group plans to demonstrate the quality of Canadian composers like Gilles Tremblay. Ensemble1534 will perform his compositions …le sifflement des vents porteurs de l’amour and Le signe du lion alongside works by Boulez (Le Marteau sans maître) and Norway’s Rolf Wallin (Stonewave) at the première.

“Canadian composers don’t have to hold their heads down to anyone. It’s a great culture of composition and it has a great history. It’s my responsibility to show audiences that they can be proud of their own music.”

In the longer term, Linwood said he hopes the ensemble becomes a mentoring organization.

Though ensemble1534 will call Ottawa home, its roots began in Victoria. Linwood and his wife Darnell (horn) had talked about forming a pan-Canadian group for years. They saw the seeds of it in their Victoria group the Aventa Ensemble, which occasionally welcomed guest performers from across the country.

“What we wanted to do was formalize it more,” he said.

The Linwoods drew together colleagues past and present from the new music world, with support from the National Arts Centre and Canada Council. Darnell came up with the name ensemble1534 for its bilingualism and reference to Jacques Cartier’s first voyage to North America in 1534.

“She wanted something that was uniquely Canadian but also about discovery,” Linwood said.

Ensemble1534 has several Victoria links in addition to the Linwoods. Victoria Symphony percussionist Corey Rae is a member of the group. It also includes Nanaimo-born Amy Laing, the Victoria Symphony’s former principal cellist, now based in Toronto. And Gregory Lee Newsome, although based in Toronto, formerly lived in Victoria when his wife Sherry Lee taught at UVic’s School of Music.

Other members include Mark McGregor (flute), Roger Admiral (piano), Xavier Brossard-Ménard (clarinet), Rick Sacks (percussion), John Corban (violin), Jonathan Barriault (guitar), Pemi Paull (viola) and David Schotzko (percussion).

Newsome, who acts as composer-adviser for the ensemble, said the performers are unique as contemporary music specialists.

“I think that brings a certain passion for the music, which I think really does translate in a positive way for the audience,” said composer-advisor Gregory Lee Newsome.

Membership onstage will be flexible between 10 and 20 performers, depending on instrumentation required based on music performed at a particular concert.

“It’s a repertoire-driven ensemble,” Newsome said. “That’s not something that’s super common either.”

While the group will stick to concerts in Ottawa and Toronto for its inaugural season, they plan to perform internationally beginning in New York City next year.

“The goal is to promote Canadian culture, promote Canadian music and give a voice to Canadian composers,” Newsome said.

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