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A bravura season finale

Koerner Hall
03/29/2012 -  
Harry Somers: Piano Concerto No. 3
Adam Scime: Mirage
Jimmie LeBlanc: The Touch of Psyche
Iannis Xenakis: Jonchaies

James Parker (Piano)
The Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk (Conductor)

J. Parker (© Shin Sugino)

Esprit Orchestra’s 29th season ended with a truly smashing grand finale. Even the opening piece was epic is scale: Harry Somers’ Third Piano Concerto, premiered by the orchestra in 1996 with the same fine pianist, James Parker.

Somers (1925-1999) studied in France in the late 1940s (he received a scholarship for this from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association - I know this seems bizarre, but this was before the era of government arts funding in Canada). He studied with Darius Milhaud and the more obscure (today) French pianist Robert Schmitz (1889-1949) who championed the music of Charles Ives and Olivier Messiaen among cutting-edge composers of his day. Some 47 years after Schmitz’s death Somers dedicated this work in his memory.

When a composer looks back across such a passage of time one might expect something valedictory but such is not the case. It’s a vigorous, lengthy (over 30 minutes) work in three movements and it gives the pianist ample scope to show his stuff. There are gamelin-esque sections in the first movement, and the quiet piano solo that opens the second movement is like something Erik Satie might have composed. The final movement also has a major solo section as well as intriguing tonal layers in the orchestra before the end that comes down like a guillotine.

This is the third time Esprit has performed this work, part of its policy of revisiting “old” repertoire. It turns out to be well worth repeating.

The second piece on the program was chosen from among works submitted by composition students at the University of Toronto. The Esprit Orchestra did a read-through of each piece and the one chosen was Adam Scime’s Mirage, a six-minute piece for orchestra based on an earlier work for just 11 strings. One would never have guessed a “strings-only” starting point as the diverse instruments of the orchestra are confidently handled. Scime states an interest in the approach of the French spectralists (Canadian Claude Vivier also explored this approach).

Earlier this year Mr. Scime unveiled an opera on the subject of Toronto’s current mayor - a very divisive topic, to say the least. We look forward to hearing more from him.

Yet another world premiere (this time an Esprit commission) was Quebec composer Jimmie LeBlanc’s The Touch of Psyche (“La Touche de Psyché”). I don’t have space to go into the complicated myth involving the love of a god (Eros, or Cupid) for a mortal (Psyche) and the taboo nature of their union. LeBlanc has devised a comparison with the relationship between the musical creator and the listener. The piece is in six short sections of contrasting temperament, featuring, in places, off-kilter rhythmic shifts and layered sonorities. The final section is downright mechanistic.

Jonchaies was composed by Iannis Xenakis in 1977. It is a comment on the rather staid repertoire of North American orchestras that it did not receive a performance on this continent until 2006 - and it was by the Esprit Orchestra whose audience has clamored for a repeat performance ever since. A major barrier to a quick repeat (and perhaps to performances in general) is that it requires 109 players, mainly due to a hugely expanded string section. I don’t know if the requisite number was actually reached, but the capacious platform of Koerner Hall was more densely populated than I have ever seen.

The piece begins with strings and percussion creating a veritable ocean of sound. When the strings give way to the brass section a sort of drunken dance ensues. Things get even noisier, with wailing sounds of mysterious origin (no electronics are used). The man sitting in front of me fled at one point. The sonic blast subsides into bell sounds at the end - I got the impression that there might have been tones only dogs can hear. I liked it. I can see why the Esprit audience wanted a repeat.

Xenakis experimented with “stochastic”, or randomly-produced, sounds. Some of these sounds certainly contributed to the content of Jonchaies (the title means “reeds”, as in dried reeds scattered about) but the piece is fully written out - i.e., without instructions for players to extemporize.

Also during the concert was the announcement of this year’s recipient of the Toronto Emerging Composer Award: Emilie Cecilia LeBel, a multimedia artist who is working on a chamber opera about her neighbourhood. A second prize was also given this year, to Monica Pearce, a founder of Toronto’s Toy Piano Collective. (Yes, the toy piano might just be coming into its own.)

Esprit looks forward to its 30th season with no less than ten new commissions to be performed. Environmental issues will be highlighted with collaborations with R. Murray Schafer and photographer Edward Burtynsky. Much to look forward to.

Michael Johnson



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