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Exuberance and tumult

Koerner Hall
11/15/2015 -  
Thomas Adès: Tevot
John Rea: Zefiro torna
Andrew Norman: Play

Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk (conductor)

A. Norman (Courtesy of Esprit Orchestra)

A buzzing audience turned out for a concert that promised - and delivered - major pieces by composers attaining centre stage in today’s music world. We also experienced the Esprit Orchestra in its largest ever incarnation as 79 musicians were required for the opening work, Tevot by Thomas Adès. The instrumental balance, though, was unlike that of a conventional orchestra, with a larger proportion of wind players (such as eight horn players), not to mention eight percussionists.

Tevot was commissioned in 2007 jointly by the Berlin Philharmonc Orchestra and the Carnegie Hall Corporation, and it is one hefty piece. The title (pronounced tay-VOT) is Hebrew for bars of music, and is a close homonym for “ark”, as in Noah’s ark or the floating cradle of Moses. It begins with slow descending phrases with glittering undertones but then ramps up to maximalism running rampant with various sections of the orchestra slugging it out. After awhile it suggested a good old-fashioned program, namely a sea picture, with heavy swells of music and at times one wonder whether alarm or joy is being conveyed. Momentum doesn’t occur because of rhythmic thrust so much as by the sheer weight of the music. Things dwindle to what must be a ppppp before it gradually ramps up again, leading to a brief episode almost reminiscent of Aram Khatchaturian, leading to a brassy climax with trilling winds that slowly seems to pass beyond the horizon. It is quite the sonic adventure over 28 minutes.

This is the fifth work by Adès to be played by Esprit (and one work has been played three times) and is part of a multi-year project to perform all his orchestral works. Given that the energetic composer is only 44 this project seems destined to continue for a long time.

John Rea’s Zefiro torna provided a welcome respite between the two ultra-assertive works. Rea received the first commission from Esprit back in 1983 and this is the third time around for Zefiro torna, a work from 1994. The title refers to the return of spring breezes and are the opening words of a sonnet by Petrarch which was subsequently set to music by Claudio Monteverdi. Employing about 40 players, the piece features up a scattering of distant sounds. The pulsing music manages to be both there and not there, like a restless dream one can’t quite grasp. It’s music that lightly tickles the senses.

Andrew Norman is a 36-year-old American composer whose Play (2014) was commissioned and recorded by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. It has been receiving a lot of commentary.

Another of Norman’s works (from 2005) is called Drip Blip Sparkle Spin Glint Glide Glow Float Flop Chop Pop Shatter Splash. A lot of those words can be used to describe Play, the title of which could well be Playtime. Much of it sounds like something a bunch of joyfully hyperactive kids would create if let loose with a large orchestra, especially at the start with wild juxtapositions reminiscent of Spike Jones. It resembles an orchestral family spat - but then becomes restful before the melee resumes, with stormclouds of sound.

The composer's notes, however, indicate a more serious aim, as he uses the word “play” in the meaning of manipulating a person or event for one’s own purposes - is this really what happens when a conductor conducts or players respond to one another? I’m not convinced; certainly sections of the orchestra dominate at times, but I couldn’t detect any edgy cross-currents denoting dominance or resistance. It’s basically more like a big romp.

The 45-minute work is in three sections of almost equal length called Levels I, II and III. Levels I and III can be performed as stand-alone pieces (and are published separately for this purpose), which is probably wise as most orchestras are happier with short contemporary works. I don’t see why Level II couldn’t also stand alone, although it is the quirkiest section of an extremely quirky work, with what seem to be strangled utterances leading to inchoate haunted house sounds; it has a rude outburst that seems to be its finale but is not. When it does end a very long silence is held before Level III begins with tiny, meek noises and a brief episode that called to my mind Antonín Dvorák’s American Quartet. But that isn’t allowed to last as the music sweeps and grows in a effortful manner before subsiding to a series of very quiet stretches. At this point I couldn’t help but think of Michael Colgrass’s 1966 piece As Quiet As (and noticed that he was in the audience). The work ends with tiny sounds. Andrew Norman's notes also use the word "labyrinth" to describe the piece, which is very apropos. The listener feels he has emerged from quite the immersive experience.

The composer was present - there was lots of applause.

Michael Johnson



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