Montreal-based collectif9 left its mark on Edmonton this past month, presenting listeners with a program of interesting and augmented takes on some classic repertoire staples. A string orchestra of nine young and seriously talented players, the group brought a diverse selection of works to the ears of the ECMS audience that included pieces by Mahler, Purcell and Osvaldo Golijov. From the Baroque to the electronic dance music of today, collectif9 offered compelling takes on music that would otherwise have been outside of the scope of what could be expected a chamber concert. The group’s signature combination of interpretive innovation and impressive performance skill kept listeners bound and engaged as they followed the group on an unpredictable musical tour across style and genre.

The program notes for collectif9’s concertmade clear the fact that the musical structure of the evening would be fluid; malleable and bouncing between composers and musical periods. Up first was Spheres – a haunting, ethereal single-movement piece for string orchestra by British composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev). The piece inhabits an austere atmosphere that unfurls gradually, and with increasing complexity atop persistent, plodding punctuation from the bass strings that seem to suggest the subversive artistic humour that famously pervades so much of his famous grandfather’s music. Spheres is a short piece – around four minutes in length – and manages to cover significant textural and emotional ground in that span, from the plaintive and simple to the jagged and dissonant. Under the capable bows of  collectif9’s nine superb instrumentalists, the substance of Prokofiev’s work was communicated engagingly, and with the seriousness it deserves.

Gypsy folk music had a traceable influence throughout the evening’s program, with each piece having been given a dash of Roma perfume and arrangement by the group’s bassist and leader, Thibault Bertin-Maghit. Works like Night of the Flying Horses and Tancas Serradas a Muru, form composer Osvaldo Golijov (an Argentinian composer of Romanian-Jewish heritage) gave collectif9 ample opportunity to demonstrate their robust skill as players in a genre of folk music renowned for its virtuosity and depth. Golijov’s music proved an intriguing blend of both the lovable, melancholic lyricism and ferocious athleticism of Romanian folk-dance music. collectif9 found similar sentiments ripe for teasing out in the music of Mahler too; the well known slow movement of the composers first symphony was given a charming reassessment, replete with descriptive ornamentation (with players mimicking the calls of woodland animals to great affect), and a refreshing dash of paprika-spurned enthusiasm in movements well-known klezmer-influenced sections. Of course, no survey of Roma-inspired music could forget Bartok’s charming Romanian Folk Dances, of which collectif9 played a rousing, foot-tapping medley.

collectif9 also made forays into older music, presenting innovative instrumental re-imaginings of both the opening chorus of Bach’s St. John Passion, and Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. In the case of both works, the point of these interpretations wasn’t to give convincing readings of well-known Baroque music in string-arrangements. Rather, the way in which these works unraveled and expanded into contemporary, dance-influenced rhythms and modern harmonic language gave insight into how their original musical building blocks, despite a centuries’-long distance between their aesthetic world and our own, were just as useable and fresh under vastly different stylistic treatments.

In a way, collectif9’s message was one of unity, and they communicated in the way they highlighted common themes of dance rhythm and style across disparate pieces that wouldn’t otherwise be understood as having anything in common. The group’s program made the temporal distance between Purcell and Stravinsky and Golijov appear much smaller, and their respective works far more interconnected one would think. collectif9 understands that, if what we know (inaccurately) as ‘classical’ music is to persist and continue to engage listeners and draw their interest, then it is imperative that the very real artistic connections across centuries and styles be acknowledged and communicated. Through programs like those they present, Purcell and Mahler and modern house music aren’t partitioned, isolated bodies of work, but consecutive and interrelated signposts along a single path. Props to this vibrant young group for recognizing this and for bringing it to the ECMS audience with such passion and enjoyment. Let’s have them back soon!

Morgan Luethe

Born and raised in Edmonton, Morgan has studied music since an early age and continues to enjoy both performing (at the piano) as well as composing his own music. As a graduate in Philosophy from the University of Alberta, he finds that listening to great music with one’s brain, is just as important as listening to it with one’s ears. One of his passions is to share the music he loves with friends and family – anyone who will listen really, with the aim of perhaps teaching them something neat and interesting about it along the way.