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Another lively evening from Esprit

Koerner Hall
05/25/2014 -  
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Out of Black Dust
Christopher Mayo: Under Dark Water
Zosha Di Castri: Serafiniana
Louis Andriessen: Mysteriën

Claudia Schaer (amplified violin), Sanya Eng (amplified harp), Female vocal quartet
Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk (conductor)

Z. Di Castri (© The Esprit Orchestra)

The Royal Conservatory’s first annual festival of 21st century music concluded with Esprit Orchestra’s final concert (entitled Mysteries) of its 31st season. It opened with Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Out of Black Dust, premiered in 2009 by the Berlin Philharmonic brass ensemble. For horn, four trumpets, four trombones and tuba, the players also play cowbells and tambourines. The program notes describe the work as “clamorous dialogue” - which turns out to be an understatement, especially in the intimate acoustic of Koerner Hall. As in Garrison Keillor’s A Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra, one wished they were playing in another room.

A distinctive contrast was presented with Christopher Mayo’s Under Dark Water for female vocal quartet and orchestra. The text consists of a paragraph (it comes across as a tone poem) from Toby Litt’s 2001 novel deadkidsongs - the title a literal translation of Kindertotenlieder. Mayo’s composition takes material from the opening bars of the first of Gustav Mahler’s five songs in his cycle, but “exploding and extending them over the 20-minute length of the work” (program notes). The paragraph describes a boy’s near-death experience while swimming in the ocean. The result is a hynotically beautiful work. The light-textured orchestration and the almost subliminal vocal parts provide a magical correlation with the text. The soloists (soprano Gisele Kulak, mezzo-sopranos Amy Dodington and Andrea Ludwig, and alto Laura McAlpine) voice the words in a rather laconic, detached manner; the result is much like a religious litany.

The Toronto-born Mayo is now composer in residence with the Manchester (UK) Camerata. Let’s hope more of his work gets performed in his home town.

Under Dark Water was a world premiere - and an Esprit commission - as was Zosha Di Castri’s Serafiniana. The title refers to Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, published in 1981, an illustrated encyclopedia of an imaginary world written in an invented language. It could be said the Serafini has created a literary work that aspires to the abstract nature of music. Di Castri states that Serafiniana “aims to present a different way of hearing, often involving a dialogue between antiphonal choirs of instruments”. What stood out to me was the use of a solo violin (played by Claudia Schaer) that was electronically amplified (or altered would be a better term) whose part “serves as a filament running through the varied textures”. The electronic attachment gave the violin a rather harsh, metallic tone; this sounds disagreable, but the instrument is used discreetly, often disappearing beneath the sounds of the orchestra. The result is a subtle sense of weirdness, much like Serafini’s book. It is definitely not a concerto. A harp is also electronically altered. The third of the three linked movements presents a relentless downward musical slope. I wouldn’t mind hearing it performed again accompanied by images from Serafini’s Codex.

The concert concluded with Louis Andriessen’s Mysteriën premiered in 2013 by Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra. It was performed on the exact 125th anniversary day of both the orchestra and its acclaimed hall. At one point in the Concertgebouw’s history - in 1969 - a performances was disrupted by a group of young composers protesting its hidebound repertory. Louis Andriessen (then 30) was one of the disruptors. So 44 years later in a productive composing career he received this commission, his first from them.

The work’s six movements have titles referring to sections of the 15th century De Imitatione Christi , a book of Christian devotion with a mystical edge by Thomas van Kempen (known in English as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis). Although born in Germany, Thomas van Kempen lived and wrote in the Netherlands and his book was important to Andriessen’s father (also a composer). The work doesn’t require a full large symphony orchestra, being scored for reduced strings but with the addition of a saxophone, contrabass clarinet and two pianos. I can’t say that I experienced any of the meditations that inspired the work e.g., “Of the despising of all vanities of the world” (the opening section) or “Of the ordeal of the true lover” (the fourth). The music for the third section (“What truth speaks from inside without the noise of words”) is light-textured, a welcome relief from the previous “Of the considering of the misery of mankind”. For the final one “Of the meditation on death”, where one might expect something transcendent or solemn, the composer features a plaintive trumpet amidst high-pitched brass and woodwinds, a sonic preference Andriessen utilized extensively in his monodrama Anaïs Nin, heard as part of the C21 festival just three days earlier.

The evening opened with the announcement of the winner of this year’s Toronto Emerging Composer Award. Jason Doell will use the $6,000 award to complete a commission for a piece for guitar accompanied by electroacoustic components. Esprit’s 2014-15 season will feature another eclectic array of 20th and 21st century works, including (as ever) world premieres.

Michael Johnson



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