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Brio is where you find it

Koerner Hall
10/04/2015 -  
Zosha Di Castri: Lineage
Thomas Adès: Dances from "Powder her Face"
Omar Daniel: Sinfonia Concertante: Mehetapja Meeli Unistus (World Premiere)
Jörg Widmann: Con Brio

Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk (conductor)

(Courtesy of Esprit Orchestra)

The concert began with Zosha Di Castri’s Lineage, composed in 2013, in which the composer explores the origins of the family heritage that has been passed down to her. It opens with a intimate and haunting atmosphere and a slow descent becoming ever quieter. Subsequent eruptions both large and small are interspersed with dreamlike episodes, leading to a big climax that turns out to be a false finale, before the work drifts into a realm where the composer seems to be trying to grasp the ungraspable. Overall Lineage displays an intriguing use of a large orchestra (more than 60 players) in deft, often sparse, deployment.

Thomas Adès’s Dances from "Powder her Face" was composed in 2007 for large orchestra, taking material from his chamber opera (composed 1995) which used just 15 players. The first of the three sections ("Overture") gives us lurching palm court music evoking a kind of lurid false glamour going nightmarishly sour. The second ("Waltz") is less mordant than Overture, conjuring up happy times with a shadow hanging over it all. The third section ("Finale") is a mocking, drunken tango, ending with a belch. Overall: effectively garish and chilling.

Omar Daniel’s Sinfonia Concertante was the evening’s world premiere (one of more than 100 commissioned by Esprit). The piece has a subtitle: Mehetapja Meeli Unistus translated as “Meeli: the Husband Killer’s Dream”, and therein lies a tale. The composer is of Estonian origin and the myth of Meeli, a bride who unaccountably murders her husband on their wedding night, is part of his heritage. Here is yet another brutal myth from northern lands receiving musical treatment, like Kullervo (Sibelius), Gurrelieder (Schoenberg), or the Icelandic Eddas (Wagner). After her crime Meeli flees human society trying to find forgiveness from nature before she disappears into a bog (really!)

The piece begins with some simple piano music which leads to deep, heavy orchestration. The sinfonia concertante technique lies in playing various parts of the orchestra, notably the strings, against the larger whole at various times during the piece. An elemental storminess is appropriate to the tale - insistent use of low brass is extremely effective and reminiscent of (but not imitative of) parts of Wagner’s Siegfried. I would be interested in hearing an enlargement of the piece with vocal parts added. The bits of poetry quoted in the program are very evocative.

German composer (and clarinetist) Jörg Widmann is 42 and has had works performed by high-profile orchestras and opera companies. His Con Brio was composed in 2008 and premiered by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. The 15-minute work contains brief snatches from Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth symphonies enmeshed in a collage of dry rustlings, thunks, rattles, wails, yelps, murmurs, and other ultra-modern sounds. It demands lightening-quick contributions from every part of the orchestra.

The piece is reminiscent of Lukas Foss’s 1967 work Baroque Variations, which treats works by Domenico Scarlatti, Handel and J. S. Bach in similar ways. Beethoven’s Seventh ends with an Allegro con brio movement, and the Eighth begins with Allegro vivace e con brio. In Widmann’s work the brio has to fight its way through a thorny thicket - and the ending is an understated senza brio.

This concert was the first in Esprit’s 33rd season. This has been a good year for them. In the spring the orchestra traveled to China and performed in new music festivals in Beijing and Nanning (Widmann’s Con Brio was part of their repertoire). Also: recently the orchestra’s founding director, Alex Pauk, was awarded the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honour.

Michael Johnson



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