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Brash expressionism

Koerner Hall
01/29/2015 -  
Daníel Bjarnason: Over Light Earth
Robert Aitken: Berceuse for Flue and Orchestra
Samuel Andreyev: The Flash of the Instant
Philip Cashian: the world's turning

Robert Aitken (flute)
Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk (conductor)

R. Aitken (Courtesy of Esprit Orchestra)

Once again an engrossing program from Esprit Orchestra.

The program began with the Canadian premiere of Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason’s Over Light Earth, composed in 2013 and inspired by two American paintings in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. It is in two parts, the first one evoking a painting by Mark Rothko (“Dark over Light Earth”) and which conjures up a bleak loneliness, and the second “Number 1, 1949", a painting by Jackson Pollock, which features jazzy stretches amongst hesitant searching lines. Two pianos on opposite sides of the platform (amidst about 20 players in all) establish a tumbling pointillist pattern. The piece seems to end mid-phrase but upbeat.

In its 32 years of operation, Esprit Orchestra has commissioned over 100 new works. It’s great that they can find time occasionally to revisit one of them given the limitations of a four-performance season. Thus we were treated to Robert Aitkin’s Berceuse for Flute and Orchestra (subtitled “for those who sleep before us”) which was commissioned by Esprit in 1992 and written in memory of the composer’s father. The untitled opening section has an Asian sound (much like a shakuhachi), using the pentatonic scale plus a technique employing flutters and vocal utterance, accompanied by atmospheric echoes from the orchestra. The second movement, “Cortège, has an insistent, metallic, plodding progression; this expands with considerable input from the brass instruments. It all dies away peacefully.

Aside from being well into the sixth decade of a performing career, flutist Robert Aitken continues to lead Toronto’s New Music Concerts, founded over 40 years ago, an organization that has always presented a wide array of contemporary compositions in various venues around the city.

The second half of the concert featured the world premieres of two commissioned works. Samuel Andreyev’s The Flash of the Instant is a piece that abandons any semblance of development for a slashing, sparkling arrangement of sonorities, deriving maximum colour from the various sections of the orchestra. Although not referencing visual art as in Daniel Bjarnason’s piece, it conjures up a brash abstract expressionist work. Andreyev was born in Ontario (1981) and now lives in France.

The second brand new work was composed by the British composer Philip Cashian, (b. 1963), since 2007 the Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Its title, the world’s turning is a quote from the William Boyd novel Waiting for Sunrise, but is part of a sentence where a character envisions the world stopping its turning. As the composer notes, the work focuses on musical momentum and stasis. It features restless merging of phrases giving rise to the emergence of new themes. I found it to have a good deal more movement than stasis before the piece stutters toward its end.

Since the two new works have a fair degree of similarity, hearing them separated by a contrasting piece would have set them off to better effect. Still, they did much to demonstrate the orchestra’s pyrotechnics to the delight of the ever-engaged Esprit audience.

Michael Johnson



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