CLASSICAL NOTES: Koyczan dominates

Shane Koyczan performs with the Okanagan Symphony in Vernon Sunday. - Jim Elderton
Shane Koyczan performs with the Okanagan Symphony in Vernon Sunday.
— image credit: Jim Elderton

Sunday’s standing ovation for Okanagan Symphony was instant, unanimous, and before the orchestra had stopped playing.

Not just for the soloist, spoken word poet Shane Koyczan, but also for the brilliant pairing of text and orchestra. Like all good pairings, the sum was greater than its parts.

I’d already seen him at the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival with his band Short Story Long, also at the Performing Arts Centre. And no-one could forget his appearance at the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

But Okanagan Symphony’s music director and conductor Rosemary Thomson saw a bigger picture,  “I discovered he lives in Penticton, and after the Olympics, I stalked him for two years.  Finally at a CD table, I waited in line and asked, ‘Now will you come and play with my band?’”

It was a first for him, and also the first time OSO has programmed a single soloist for an entire show. Two years in preparation, they collaborated on how to combine poetry and music.

The third partner was Canadian composer Jordan Nobles, who’d already written two pieces for Koyczan. For this concert, four more were commissioned, with a fifth added just one day before dress rehearsal.

But his music is far from straight-forward. Nobles instructed the orchestra about his piece for Specials, consisting of a dozen separate motifs, one for for each player or group, to be repeated at the musician’s discretion.

During rehearsals he would help them come in, then they were on their own.

Thus each performance would be different.  When I wanted him to define this style of composition he hesitated.  “Can it be called improvisation” I asked?  He finally decided on “rhythmically independent melodies.”

Nobles has emerged as one of Canada’s finest composers, known for creating music filled with an “unearthly beauty” (Mondo magazine), and recently, his piece Simulacrum was nominated classical composition of the year at the Western Canadian Music Awards.

On Sunday, his pieces were a perfect compliment to Shane’s poetry, and the resulting synergy was electric. But during rehearsals Rosemary told me: “My gut’s been in a knot for a week – what if it doesn’t work?

But it did, and the audience was wildly enthusiastic.  I’ve never experienced an orchestral concert like this.  What was particularly impressive was the extent to which the orchestra gave way to the spoken word. They really did play second fiddle!

Koyczan’s peotry is deeply personal, while at the same time touching on human feelings which are all too familiar.  Unrequited love, rejection, frustration, loneliness, and the striving for personal integrity surfaced again and again.

His delivery style is unrelentingly blunt, and life experiences have led him to dark places. Certainly this might offend some, but Sunday’s audience was enraptured, and his use of words is a delight.

His poem When I Was a Kid touched on his childhood:  “I hid my heart under my bed because my mother said that if you’re not careful, someday somebody’s going to break it.”

The anguish of his passion was evident.  People were crying.

“When I was 14, I was asked to seriously consider a career path.  I said, I’d like to be a writer.  And they said, choose something realistic.

We were being told that we somehow must become what we are not, sacrificing what we are, to inherit the masquerade of what we will be.”

Not all the selected music was new.

Koyczan made his stage entrance to Darth Vader’s theme, his anti-bullying piece used Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a tribute to his cat used Gabriel’e Oboe from The Mission, and his final piece How to be a Parent was accompanied by Barber’s haunting Adagio For Strings.

And for his encore, A Letter to Myself, they played Freddie Mercury’s We are The Champions.


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