Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada May 15-19, 2014
Victoriaville, Quebec is a town of some 40,000 two hours east of Montreal, a regional center known for the sober pursuits of dairy and wood production. For the past three decades (beginning in 1983), the town has also hosted one of the world's most renowned festivals of adventurous music, the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, or Victo, as it is popularly known. The festival is the brainchild of artistic director Michel Levasseur, who chose the town as the site of the festival simply because he has lived there all his life.
Over the years, the festival and the town have had a somewhat ambivalent relationship. While it appears that the city's business and political leaders have embraced the festival, which exists mainly on a combination of business and government sponsorship, the festival has not gained a lot of traction among the local population. But that situation seems to be changing, however gradually. The band of music nerds who travel to Victoriaville from points as far away as the Arizona, Portugal, and Germany each Victoria Day weekend to attend the festival must seem like a curiosity to most of the locals. Given that this is an aging cohort (there was much talk among the 50-somethings about how standing up for hours at music festivals is now impossible), there is a need for new blood. Since taking a one-year hiatus (there was no FIMAV in 2009), Levasseur has doubled down on efforts to renew the festival, reaching out to a younger generation (and the general population) with, most prominently, a set of sound installations along a popular bike path in the center of town.
Levasseur has always had to tread a paradoxically careful line in his programming, in trying to give a sense of the broad range of so-called avant-garde music while appealing to more narrow constituencies. For example: When I first attended the festival in 1999, many of the critics in attendance were old-line free jazz types who would complain about the amount of non-jazz on the program. Those people no longer make the journey, and the critics who still regularly attend are not put off by the other musics that have always been a part of Victo.
All that said, a number of the most interesting performances at the thirtieth edition of FIMAV were, in fact, jazz-related, including the first two concerts, Meredith Monk and the Ratchet Orchestra with Marshall Allen. Monk performed songs from the whole of her career, including several with vocalist Kate Geissinger, both vocal duets and accompanying Geissinger on the piano. Monk is one of a kind, whose work might at first come off as just so much vocal trickery, but as the concert moved along, the charm and emotional depth of the material won out. There is a wide resonance to Monk's voice that is most impressive and affecting.
Next up was a special performance by Montreal's Ratchet Orchestra, a somewhat motley crew comprised of both professional and amateur musicians under the direction of bassist Nicolas Caloia
. In honor of Sun Ra's centenary, the group played the whole of Ra's Sunology: A Suite of Philosophical Songs, with guests Allen and flautist Danny Thompson, the first time the album has been performed in its entirety. Allen was in fine form, and not just for a 90-year-old man. His playing was fiery and impassioned, and he truly seemed to enjoy playing with the Ratchets. It helped that Caloia's arrangements captured the spirit of the Sun Ra Orchestra, with a delightful looseness and strong individual voices rising up through the ensemble passages.
Thursday ended with guitarist Ava Mendoza's new trio (new since her move to New York City) of bassist Tim Dahl and drummer Nick Podgorski, a heavy-rocking outfit that featured some gorgeously aggressive interplay between Mendoza and Dahl, Mendoza spitting out shards of notes that Dahl answered with thunderous aplomb.