Trying to provide professional-calibre orchestral music in a small northern city can be … well, problematic. Just ask Daniel Janke.
“The main problem is we don’t have an orchestra. We live in a community where the demographic doesn’t really provide for all the players we need.”
Still, skilled performers continue to move to the Yukon, and Janke believes others would consider doing so if there were opportunities to play at a high level. So the Whitehorse musician-composer-filmmaker is approaching the challenge pragmatically.
“It’s almost like a ‘build it and they will come’ scenario. We’re trying to put together what we can, to create an opportunity for players who want to play at a professional level to perform with a large ensemble,” he says.
“We’re calling it maybe, perhaps, a chamber orchestra. And there’s a bit of humour in that approach to it, for sure.”
Enter the Problematic Orchestra, which makes its debut on Wednesday, December 21 at the Yukon Arts Centre at 8:00 p.m., in the tradition of winter solstice concerts Janke introduced several years ago as founder of the Longest Night Society.
The group’s complement of 15 performers is just shy of the traditional 17-member chamber orchestra, with a slightly different instrumental mix.
“We don’t have a lot of the winds or brass, and we have extra strings in our ensemble, so it’s a hybrid ensemble. It’s not an orchestra, it’s not a chamber orchestra, it’s a hybrid.”
Janke is quick to praise both Henry Klassen’s community orchestra and Fumi Torigai’s string ensemble for the opportunities they provide both younger and more mature local musicians.
“Players have to play to keep their skills, and both of these ensembles are important in the community,” he says.
His goal for the new ensemble, however, are quite different.
“First of all, we’re playing mostly contemporary music, or new music, and it’s all nuanced, special arrangements for the ensemble that is not the older, classical repertoire,” he explains.
“We’re also building towards a professional status. We’re trying to provide players with an opportunity to be pushed. The better players have more energy to put into an ensemble if they feel they’re being pushed and they’re improving as players.”
This month’s concert is a way of gauging the appetite for such a venture in Whitehorse, and “taking the first steps toward building it,” Janke says.
The solstice event, presented by the Yukon Arts Centre, in co-operation with Music Yukon and the Yukon Film Society, will offer an eclectic menu, including compositions by Janke, as well as by ensemble members Andrea McColeman and Scott Maynard.
“We’re crossing a lot of genres. We’re going to be playing some music that might be called jazz. We’re also playing some music that is very traditional, classical repertoire.”
The classical component will include the well-known Adagio in G Minor by the Italian baroque composer, Tomaso Albinoni.
“Because we’re creating the music and the arrangements for the ensemble, we can do whatever we want. It’s not playing music only by dead composers, it’s primarily playing music by people who are living and contributing to a milieu today.”
One of the highlights of the evening will be a screening of the classic 1929 silent film, The Man With a Camera, by Russian director Dziga Vertov, with the Problematic Orchestra performing a live score.
It’s Janke’s second outing with the film, which the British Film Institute’s Sound and Screen magazine named best documentary film of all time in 2014. Two years ago, he accompanied the film with a quintet for a Yukon Film Society event.
Vertov’s film, which has no storyline or actors, chronicles day-to-day life in four Russian cities. The fast-paced epic pioneered many film techniques that have since become commonplace, including double exposures, jump cuts, split screens and tracking shots.
“It’s a beautiful piece of cinematography, and it’s naturally playful. It’s a good insight into life in Russia in the ’20s. We’re just having fun with it. It’s going to be a playful part of the evening,” Janke says.
In some respects, the Problematic Orchestra’s debut this month is the precursor to a larger Janke project unfolding next year. He is one of several Canadian composers the Toronto Symphony Orchestra dubbed to write new pieces for its Canada 150 repertoire.
“Every once in a while, the powers that be in central Canada like to throw a bone to the colonies, so we’re humble and patient,” Janke says.
“The theory is that the same piece will be performed by a local orchestra. But, of course, we don’t have an orchestra. That’s problematic,” he quips.
As things now stand, the TSO will perform Janke’s still-unwritten piece next October with an orchestra of about 56 members. He will then adapt it for a solstice performance in Whitehorse next December.
For the composer, that means having to “reverse-engineer” the piece to fit the number of players – and instruments – that are available for that purpose.
If Janke’s plans work out, finding the ideal ensemble of highly-skilled performers may no longer be problematic.