When she saw her perform under the Yellowknife’s midnight sun, Rosemary Thomson knew it would be a beautiful, brazen performance far removed from the classical mainstream.
The Okanagan Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of music director Thomson, welcomes renowned Inuk throat singer and experimental performer Tanya Tagaq to the Kelowna stage Oct. 13 and Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre Oct. 14.
“The biggest thing that I’ve heard about Tanya perform is, ‘It’s unlike anything I’ve heard before,’” Thomson said of the Polaris Music Prize-winner. “My brother-in-law said to me, ‘When I see her live, I feel like I want to weep one moment and laugh the next, and I don’t know why.’”
Traditional throat singing, heavy metal and rock interpretations coalesce into Tagaq’s unique, and often highly improvised, operatic presence. Drawing inspiration from her Inuk roots, the Nunavut vocalist uses her artform to express her political statement.
“There’s sort of an underlying rhythmic pulse that’s continuant. There’s vocalization both on the inhale and exhale — that’s what allows it to be so continuant,” Thomson said of Tagaq’s throat singing. “She has the widest vocal range of anyone I’ve heard. I wouldn’t describe it as pretty. It’s such an immediate vocal expression of her being. It’s wondrous. It bypasses your brain and goes straight to your heart. It’s hypnotic.”
Originally performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Tagaq will close the performance with her own 25-minute composition dedicated to Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women and girls entitled Qiksaaktuq — the Inuktitut word for grief. Following the Kübler-Ross model for the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — Qiksaaktuq is a five-movement piece combining improvised vocals from Tagaq and brass under Christine Duncan, while the strings, woodwind and percussion lead by Thomson provide a musical base.
While it marks a departure from traditional OSO programming, Thomson said Tagaq’s performance represents a shift in the orchestral world.
“Orchestras have always been influenced by popular music. This is being influenced by a more contemporary music,” Thomson said. “We’ll have some die-hard classical lovers in the audience – this might not be for them. For some in the audience, it will make them feel uncomfortable. She pushes the envelope for sure.”
Thomson said there is always a level of uncertainty when bringing in an experimental artist like Tagaq, but it’s an opportunity the OSO couldn’t bypass.
“Without risk, life is boring,” Thomson laughed, noting that when western European composers originally brought cymbals into the mix it was considered a risk whereas now it’s commonplace.
“That’s the great thing about contemporary music – it keeps it fresh,” Thomson said, adding that she hopes Tagaq’s performance will instil a love of the orchestra in younger listeners.
Before Tagaq takes the stage, however, the OSO will perform Christos Hatzis’ Thunder Drum – a three-movement piece featuring a live orchestra and an electronic soundtrack and samples of Tagaq’s vocalizations.
The second half of the performance will open with Dinuk Wijeratne’s First Winter. Commissioned by the Calgary Philharmonic, First Winter is an expression of the Sri Lankan’s first experiences with Canadian winter.
“I love exploring the whole gambit from across the centuries,” Thomson said. “That’s what gives us a rich entry into the world of art.”
The OSO will take the Kelowna Community Theatre stage alongside Tagaq Oct. 13 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available through Kelowna Tickets, 250-862-2867. Tickets to the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre Show Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. are available through the Ticket Seller, 250-549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.