“Arctic Dreams” is atmospheric and dreamlike

When I attended UBC Music’s latest concert, “Arctic Dreams,” what I immediately noticed was that the Chan Centre concert hall was nowhere near full. Only about one quarter of the total seating was occupied and it stayed that way the entire night. In most cases, this is an immediate cause for concern for any performer. Yet by the end, such a scenario seemed perfectly appropriate for the atmospheric sounds it had to offer.

The concert – performed by the UBC Symphonic Wind Ensemble – featured three different concertinos by three different composers. However, what they all share are influences that stem from cold and harrowing landscapes. 

The concert’s titular piece composed by Michael Colgrass himself was inspired by his travels in the arctic circle, reflecting its harsh environment and his experience living among the Inuit people. The other two featured set pieces — “Velocity Dreams” by Christopher Stark and “The Frozen Cathedral” by John Mackey — are just as similar in their inspiration. The former was inspired by the snowcapped landscape of Western Montana, while the latter inspired by the tallest mountain in North America, “Denali.”

Barring maybe the last piece, the entire performance prioritized the atmospheric rather than the melodic. “Arctic Dreams” featured a multitude of unique instrumental usage. The flutes became the haunting arctic wind, drums became hunting rifles and the choir evoked the Inuit people casually laughing. “Velocity Meadows” is similar, but a little more experimental as it utilized a digital sound mixer and was complemented by footage of abstract images. The end result of that was an experience that had a tinge of Radiohead in it.

Despite these descriptions, the entire performance still operated on a traditional base. Although a little more unorthodox, the classic sounds of wind symphony were still recognizable. Given that, listening to all of it felt strangely nostalgic even though instruments were utilized in eccentric ways. In particular, “Frozen Cathedral” is a sweeping and bombastic orchestral piece. With trumpets and tubas at full blast, it is something that can feel right at home if it were ever featured in Disney’s orchestral anthology film, Fantasia.

Overall, the concert felt like a strange symphonic dream – in the most literal sense possible. I actually found myself drifting away at times — not out of boredom, but because of how entrancing it all was. That said, the concert still incited some mixed feelings. While the performance and the execution were very good, the very nature of the pieces themselves felt somewhat random and scattershot in certain places. Based on a few murmurs among the audience I heard between performances, it definitely did not align with a broader taste or the expectation an average person thinks of when hearing the word “symphony.”

Nevertheless, although a little difficult to follow sometimes, “Arctic Dreams” proved that there is definitely something to musically gain in balancing out both the experimental and the traditional.