Stethoscopes at the symphony

Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry has written a piece based on each musician’s heartbeat

Stethoscopes at the symphonyMadame Press Died Last Week at 90, by the 20th-century American composer Morton Feldman, is as gently obsessive as a piece of music can be. It’s a sweet, wistful tune that stops unfolding and repeats, dozens of times like a skipping record, on a G and an E flat. Edwin Outwater led the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in the piece at his first concert as the orchestra’s music director, in 2007. But he followed it with another piece about obsessive repetition: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, whose “duh-duh-duh-duuuuuh” opening is built on the same G and E flat.

That’s the sort of thing Outwater, an athletic and congenial 38-year-old Californian, likes to do. He programs a lot of 20th- and 21st-century music, perhaps more than any other conductor of a large mainstream Canadian orchestra. It’s never just filler, and he uses it to recast the older Germanic repertoire that is the heart of any orchestra’s programs, to make audiences think twice about what music is for. And if they resist, he doesn’t get too worked up about it.

After the Feldman and Beethoven concert, “some woman came up to me the next week,” he said recently. “She was in a minkish—a minkish coat, I would say. And she said, ‘I think you’re doing a great job. I really love the symphony. I have to tell you, that was like torture to me to hear that Feldman piece.’ And she was smiling. She wasn’t angry. ‘I felt like I was getting my teeth drilled.’

“I said, ‘Thank you for telling me. You don’t have to like it.’ It was a weird thing for her to hear that from me, I think. And she said, ‘Well, okay. I didn’t like it!’ and I said, ‘Well, good.’ ”

Outwater’s adventurous intellect and sunny disposition have started to transform what was already a solid and open-minded orchestra. As much as Research in Motion and the Perimeter Institute, the K-W Symphony has become part of what makes Kitchener-Waterloo a very distinctive community. Outwater is so confident of this band that he will take the K-W Symphony up the road to Toronto on Oct. 29, for a concert at the Royal Conservatory’s new Koerner Hall. That’s a cocky move, but the program he’s designed with the brilliant young U.S. composer Nico Muhly is even more audacious.

Muhly’s music blends ancient church chorales, minimalism and alternative rock. He’s been a librarian for the modern-music guru Philip Glass and a keyboardist for Björk. “I just called him,” Outwater recalls, “and said, ‘If you were to do an orchestra concert, what would you do?’ He said, ‘All passacaglias!’ ” A passacaglia is any music, ancient or new, built over a repetitive bass figure.

“It sounds very ponderous,” Outwater said, “but I thought, man, if you can pull off an all-passacaglia concert, that’d be amazing.” The Toronto program will include a 17th-century Henry Purcell piece known as the “Bell Anthem,” a ballet score from Muhly, some Philip Glass, and a new piece. A rather odd new piece.

“We asked Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre to write a piece,” Outwater says. “And it’s all based on heartbeats.” Whose? The musicians’. Everyone on stage will wear a stethoscope, and the pace of each musician’s heartbeat will set the tempo at which he plays his part. It will come out fairly ragged. That’s part of the point.

“I mean, that’s what’s out there right now,” Outwater said. “There’s all these people experimenting with sound who are in rock, or whatever, and they’re very serious about it.”

So is Outwater, and yet he has no intention of turning the K-W Symphony into a novelty act. At a recent concert he led his musicians with elegance and fire through two staples of the standard repertoire, Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony and the Sibelius Violin Concerto. The musicians’ energy flagged a little during slow passages, but on more passionate material they sound gorgeous, especially in the preternaturally clear acoustics of Kitchener’s 29-year-old Centre in the Square concert hall. (The hall’s superlative sound was a big drawing card for Outwater, though when asked why it sounds so good he admits, “I don’t understand it.”)

Whether on Germanic warhorses or newer material he must often explain to the audience from his podium, Outwater’s goal is the same: “To be sophisticated and accessible. And fun. And basically, we’re trying not to be everything orchestras are perceived to be. So, not snobby. Not, uh, old.”