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Vivid expressionism on display

Koerner Hall
05/28/2017 -  
Chris Paul Harmon: Love Locked Out – It’s All Forgotten Now
Unsuk Chin: Advice from a Caterpillar – Cantatrix Sopranica

Carla Huhatanen, Ghilslaine Deschambault (sopranos), Scott Belluz (counter tenor), Anthony Thompson (bass clarinet)
Chamber Orchestra, Guillaume Bourgogne (conductor)

A. Thompson (Courtesy of Soundstreams)

The Royal Conservatory’s 5th annual 21C Music Festival, with its nine concerts in five days, concluded with a concert assembled by Soundstreams, the ever-questing producer of contemporary music now in its 34th year of operation. The focus was on the Korean/German composer Unsuk Chin.

The concert opened with works by Toronto-born Chris Paul Harmon based on two of UK composer Ray Noble’s popular songs from the 1930s. The first one, Love Locked Out, was commissioned by Unsuk Chin in 2014 in her position as artistic director of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music of Today series. The piece begins with a period recording of the song followed by a brief sonic blitzkrieg from the 13 instrumentalists then a series of variations beginning with a dialogue between the two pianos. There is a host of pingy sounds before the piece dies away with a distant, ghostly recorded voice.

Harmon noticed that the five-note opening notes of the sing are the same used by Anton Webern’s Klavierstücke of 1925 and Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1937. There is a lot more Webern than Bartók in the style of the work, what with its many abrupt sections.

Receiving its world premier was a second work based on a Ray Noble tune, It’s All Forgotten Now. It opens with the two pianos playing in easy-going “pop” style that leads into a lot of pointillism. The piece has a greater dynamic range than Love Locked Out with passages much lighter in texture contrasted with hectic, denser episodes. Once again there is a ghostly fade-out.

As a postscript, the group played Harmon’s straightforward arrangement of Noble’s lilting song - but still there were a few odd tonal intrusions.

The opening concert of 21C presented several songs from Unsuk Chin’s 2007 opera Alice in Wonderland. “Advice from a Caterpillar” is another excerpt and, while it has words (Lewis Carroll augmented by David Henry Hwang), they are not sung or even spoken. A solo bass clarinet performs the full gamut of sounds one would expect from his instrument along with a few one doesn’t normally expect, while an assistant holds up placards (13 of them eventually) with the words spelled out. The phrase “Who are you?” recurs a dozen times.

Anthony Thompson’s deadpan presence was an amusing counterpart to his whimsical caterpillar costume (see photo above). What would Lewis Carroll have thought?

Unsuk Chin’s 30-minute Cantatrix Sopranica, dating from 2004-05, concluded the program. The work is in eight sections, each titled like a song, for three singers (a counter-tenor and two sopranos) accompanied by an 18-member orchestra. Most of the resulting vocal sounds, however, are not words but syllables interspersed with humming, laughter, shrieks, you name it. I happily put up with the opener (“Warming up”), but soon felt the need for more variety - why three high voices? But then I gradually became more involved, especially with the entertaining fifth section, “Con tutti i Fantasmi”, a send-up of extremely heartfelt Italian expression with all three singers trying to outdo one another. The concluding section pulls out all the stops, with glissandi, chattering, shrieking, pinging, and clicking - a clockshop gone mad.

The three singers delivered all this with an intensity that did not preclude fun.

In his introduction to the concert Mr. Harmon stated that he likes to “play with the audience’s expectations”. The Soundstreams (and 21C) audience never know what to expect (I surmise that’s why they are there). They happily received all the pieces played, especially the wild and crazy Cantatrix Sopranica.

Throughout the performance Guillaume Bourgogne, a busy man with contemporary ensembles in Paris, São Paulo, Lyon (his home town), and Montreal, displayed a conducting style that projected a sense of clarity to both performers and audience.

Michael Johnson



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