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More Canadian premieres

Roy Thomson Hall
02/27/2010 -  
Peter Lieberson: Suite from Ashoka’s Dream
Andrew Paul MacDonald: Ode to the West Wind
Osvaldo Golijov/arr. Gonzalo Grau: Suite from La Pasíon según San Marcos (*)

Colm Feore (Narrator), Katia and Marielle Labèque (Piano Duo)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (Conductor and Host, Miguel Harth-Bedoya (*) (Conductor)

P. Oundjian (© Hasnain Dattu)

The second concert of the 2010 New Creations Festival began with Peter Lieberson’s Suite from Ashoka’s Dream, the opera he wrote for the Santa Fe festival in 1997. The suite is a joint commission from the Aspen Music Festival and School (where it was premiered last year) and the TSO. In two movements, each with four linked sections, it traces the action of the opera. Lieberson works have been performed by the TSO over the years; I recall his piano concerto (with Peter Serkin) as a gnarly, clotted work that demanded a sort of muscular listening from the audience. Judging from this suite, he certainly has mellowed. The program notes state that “he wanted to emphasize the opera’s lyrical qualities” - and the suite certainly is lyrical, with dissonant moments used as punctuation.

Not knowing the opera, one feels at a bit of a disadvantage in judging the suite. The lyricism never descends into mush or self-indulgence. Peter Lieberson’s skill and experience shine through. One wonders whether the suite will help spark interest in producing the opera.

We then heard the world premiere of Ode to the West Wind by Canadian composer Andrew Paul MacDonald, a work for narrator and full orchestra, and yet another work carrying out the festival’s theme of “words and music”. The text is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1819 poem, straightforwardly and eloquently recited (and even emoted in places) by noted actor Colm Feore. The music is lively and expressionistic. I suspected a wind machine might be used, but Mr. MacDonald manages to avoid that cliché.

The narrator was amplified, which is fully justified in a hall seating 2600; however a sound level just a tad lower would result in the speaker being part of the vibrant, often stormy, orchestra instead of being separate from it. Mr. Feore’s drawing power might attract other Canadian orchestras to perform the work. Will it be among the relatively small number of works to find a place in the repertoire? I wouldn’t count it out.

The second half of the program presented another work by the festival’s central figure, Osvaldo Golijov and, as for his Azul at the first New Creations concert, the dynamic Miguel Harth-Bedoya occupied the podium. For this suite from his landmark work La Pasíon según San Marcos, Golijov has had more than a little help from the Venezuelan composer/arranger/performer Gonzalo Grau. Mr. Grau had a hand in orchestrating parts of the original 90-minute work, and has expanded on portions of it in creating the 30-minute suite. Although called a suite, Grau’s notes state that it can really be considered a new composition inspired by the Pasíon.

The result is virtually a sonic encyclopedia of Latin-American rhythms, with percussion dominating five of the six movements. Only the fourth movement, “Agonía”, gives respite. Two high-profile pianists, Katia and Marielle Labèque, occupy two pianos at the front of the stage; it is not a concerto, however - they are yet another part of the expanded percussion section (Gonzalo Grau himself and Pablo Bencid also joined in).

Much of the music has a celebratory, carnival air, especially the third movement, “¿Por Que?”, an all-out big band mambo. The raucous carnival music in the final movement, “Crucificción”, takes on a savage tone.

Golijov’s Pasíon has had an amazing history since its premiere in Stuttgart in 2000. A musical hybrid, it requires performers from various musical genres - classical, Latin pop, Afro-Cuban - plus a mix of acoustic and amplified music-making (not to mention dance). This makes it a challenging work for conventional orchestras to mount. The Schola Cantorum de Caracas and company have taken it on the road and I saw their performance at Rome’s Auditorium Parco della Musica in 2008. The same choir has recently (under their new name, the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela) recorded the work for the second time. The Toronto Symphony has gone to great lengths to present the Pasíon suite (and other Golijov works in the festival) in just the right way. It would be nice to think that the full Pasíon will be presented here before long.

Michael Johnson



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