|When it’s one’s job to promote concerts, as it is mine, I think one actually struggles a little harder to describe favourite concerts. How not to resort to the hyperbole of adspeak when talking about an experience as memorable as our October 2019 concert with pianist-composer-conductor Dinuk Wijeratne? Of course, if you follow our promotional material, you’ll hear us conveying how all our concerts are the best, though this one was for me among the bestest. So I’m very happy to say that the MCO has just released a live recording of two pieces from this concert, which you can hear here.
The concert’s centrepiece was the world premiere of Gajaga Vannama, a piano concerto commissioned by the MCO and composed, conducted, and performed on by Dinuk. It’s the second piece in our recording. Western-classical-meets-traditional-Sri-Lankan-music is, simplistically put, how Dinuk’s engaging program note describes it. One audience member told me they anticipated the sort of experiment that, at the very least, would delight multiculturally-minded arts administrators. Another audience member, more familiar with Dinuk’s work, said they were not in the least bit surprised when the performance was met with one of most resounding standing ovations in recent MCO memory.
As I accompanied him to an interview the day before the concert, Dinuk – articulate, friendly, and conversational – told me that he’s influenced by the rhythms of popular music. Gajaga Vannama dances in a way that few classical pieces do, and its most rhythmically infectious stretch is the ‘Konnakol’ section near the end. Probably the closest Western comparison to the rapid-fire recitation style of Konnakol is rapping in hip-hop, though there’s little in mainstream rap I’ve heard that nears the rhythmic complexity of Konnakol with its wild syncopation and kaleidoscopically-shifting meters.
At a moment where increasingly institutionalized support for diversity in the Canadian arts is also met with increasingly brazen hostility from some corners, works like Gajaga Vannama illustrate a lesson from the Renaissance no less genuine for being a cliché. At a certain point, even great traditions grow stagnant if they are not brought into interaction with the traditions of different cultures, and may flourish if they are. I’m sure the polymathic Dinuk, a Renaissance man, did not compose Gajaga Vannama in order to make a point, much less teach Canadians a lesson. Though what an inspiring example it sets!