Turning Point finds tradition in modernity

by Alex Varty for the Georgia Straight

As principal cellist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Ariel Barnes sees his share of the spotlight, but in that context he’s rarely as exposed as he will be this weekend. Donning his chamber-music hat, he’ll open the Turning Point Ensemble’s Carnival program with the unaccompanied, Balkan-inspired strains of Montreal composer Ana Sokolović’s Vez; later on, he’ll portray the Swan in Camille Saint-Saëns’s antic Carnival of the Animals. But the piece he’s most excited about playing is an almost century-old work by a composer he’s only recently discovered: Kammermusik No. 3 by Paul Hindemith.

Hindemith, many would argue, is one of the 20th century’s most overlooked composers—not because his music makes for difficult listening, but because he was something of a conservative during a time of explosive innovation.

“Being someone who’s relatively new to the music of Hindemith, I would say that these [Kammermusik] pieces are a development and a continuation of the German tradition of tonality,” says Barnes, speaking to the Straight from his Vancouver home. “At the time he was active, you have music written by Igor Stravinsky which starts to employ polytonality, and you have Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern starting to branch away from the tonal system that had existed for centuries, branching away from the tradition and attempting to create something entirely fresh and new. But I think Hindemith felt deeply connected to the music of J.S. Bach, for example, and he uses those wonderful fugal and contrapuntal ideas in a way that is very much in line with that direct tradition, while still having a very unique and fresh voice.”

Hindemith’s innovative side is evident in the way that he anticipates the skewed, astringent harmonies that Kurt Weill would later use to accompany the politically charged scripts of playwright Bertolt Brecht. Kammermusik No. 3 is a strictly instrumental score, but the 1925 work speaks volumes about cultural conditions under the Weimar Republic.

“I don’t have any doubt that he’s expressing the sociopolitical landscape of the time,” says Barnes. “I definitely get that from the music.…It’s almost like he’s prefiguring the Third Reich, a little bit. That’s very much present. It’s very interesting how the second movement, in particular, morphs from this happy, carefree, ebullient spirit into this dark, threatening, overwhelming energy‚ and then snaps right back.”

Those interested in history, musical and otherwise, should note that Kammermusik No. 3and Carnival of the Animals will be joined in the Turning Point lineup by Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a gorgeous tone poem that’s barely aged a day since its 1894 debut. On the more modern side, there’s the Sokolović piece, plus the premiere of Luft, a new suite from VSO resident composer Jocelyn Morlock.

“Placing these works of approximately a century ago next to pieces that are composed today helps us put into context what those works mean,” says Barnes. “For me, I find myself always constantly surprised by how unbelievably creative and inventive the music of the early 20th century was, and how relevant it still sounds today.”

The Turning Point Ensemble presents Carnival at Simon Fraser University’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Friday and Saturday (March 13 and 14).


VSO Principal Cellist Ariel Barnes was born to music By David Gordon Duke, Special To The Sun

The point can’t be made often enough: all the principal players of our Vancouver Symphony Orchestra are soloists in their own right. This weekend the spotlight falls on VSO Principal Cellist Ariel Barnes, the featured player in Edward Elgar’s great Cello Concerto, the anchor work for a pair of concerts at the Orpheum Saturday and Sunday, plus a run-out to Surrey’s Bell Centre for the Performing Arts on Monday.

Barnes, who took up the chair position last season, has already had a remarkable life in music. Born in Toronto to composer Milton Barnes and violinist Nancy Dinovo, he moved to Boston in 1982 when his mother got a gig with the Boston Symphony. Musicians are fundamentally a peripatetic bunch, and Vancouver was Barnes’s next port of call, in his preteen years; then it was back East for university.

“I was brought up right inside the world of classical music,” Barnes recalls. “Being a kid, I was captured by the magic, and oblivious to the hardships. I have particularly happy memories of wandering the corridors of the music halls of Boston, and spending summers at Tanglewood.

“For Grade Three, I was home-schooled, so I spent almost every day at Symphony Hall, sitting watching cartoons in the green room, with the volume turned up much too loud. One afternoon I heard a cello playing, and wandered onto a balcony, and there I was looking down at a very young Yo-Yo Ma, on stage all by himself, warming up — a very inspiring memory of my influences as a child.”

Barnes eventually headed back to the West Coast. “Family dynamics determined the move, and it was very difficult at first. I had left a nurturing musical environment, where I was being encouraged to go to Europe, and here I was working at Long & McQuade for 12 bucks an hour and practising on my lunch hour. Then members of the musical community started coming into the shop and saying, ‘Hey, come and play with us!’ I feel incredibly fortunate in this regard — that I got collegial support just when it was crucial.”

It wasn’t that long before the VSO beckoned.

“The appointment has changed my life in a number of ways. Certainly my energy is much more focused than in my previous eclectic lifestyle! I am primarily a chamber performer, where the intimacy is wonderful. The Symphony is like a really large chamber group. But playing huge orchestral repertoire to a couple of thousand people in the Orpheum is quite a different experience.

“Principal cello,” Barnes explains, “is very much a leadership position. The interconnection between the soprano and bass voices of the orchestra is absolutely essential, and you are integral to making that relationship work. You might argue that the bass section is the underpinning of the whole orchestra, and you really have the responsibility of guiding its relationship with the rest of the voices in the orchestra, and supporting them all in meaningful ways.

Ones to watch in 2013 – Rising stars in the Vancouver arts scene worth keeping an eye on this year

Cellist Ariel Barnes had a very good 2012, and indications are strong for an even better 2013. His performances ranged from an evening of all three Suites for solo cello by Benjamin Britten, in March at The Cellar, to a performance of Bossa Nova classics with guitarist Daniel Bolshoi for MusicFest Vancouver. The duo “Couloir” (Barnes and harpist Heidi Krutzen) has been “commissioning up a storm,” with four new works recorded and two more in the works.

Given his composer father and violinist mother, Barnes’ career choice seems almost pre-ordained. His imaginative interest in music from all eras, refined technique, and luscious tone have made him an indispensable part of the Vancouver music scene. Barnes’ career as a soloist and chamber player seems poised to kick into a new level of intensity over the next few months.

Watch for: Barnes starts the new year with a Prairie tour, then in late February records Areomancy, Jocelyn Morlock’s concerto for two cellos, with cellist Joseph Elsworthy. In April he’s back at The Cellar with pianist Robert Silverman and violinist David Gilham, playing Brahms – and all this on a “new” cello, a fine 18th-century Italian instrument, on loan for three years from the Canada Council’s Instrument Bank.

David Gordon Duke, Special to The Sun