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Life – and multimedia – Reflected

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
05/19/2016 -  
Zosha Di Castri: Dear Life
Jocelyn Morlock: My Name is Amanda Todd [world premiere]
Nicole Lizée: Bondarsphere [world premiere]
John Estacio: I Lost My Talk

Erin Wall (soprano), Martha Henry (narrator, recorded voice), Larry Towell, Magnum Photos (photography), Monique Mojica (actor), Barbara Willis Sweete (filmmaker), Santee Smith (choreographer)
National Arts Centre Orchestra, Alexander Shelley (conductor)
Donna Feore (creative producer and director), Peter McBoyle (sound designer), William Fallon (associate sound designer), Kimberly Purtell (lighting designer), NORMAL (visual design)

(© Fred Cattroll)

Alexander Shelley’s first season as music director of The National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) is approaching its conclusion. With just two further programs remaining, this week’s “LIFE REFLECTED” was a gala event from several perspectives. Planning commenced more than two years ago when Shelley decided to present and combine separate works by Canadian composers which reflect the experience of living in Canada. As he discussed with the audience at the evening’s conclusion, “LIFE REFLECTED” also illustrates feminist issues and universal ones, and it was no surprise he announced plans to tour the work nationally and internationally.

This week’s performance was the world premiere of this quartet of related mixed-media, multidisciplinary works. Two of them however had been presented individually, earlier in the season. Dear Life was seen at the season’s opening program last September while I Lost My Talk had its premiere in January, and both works stand up well. The use of still photography in the former was spot on, meshing well with Zosha Di Castri’s appropriately multifaceted score and with Martha Henry’s recorded narration and Erin Wall’s low-ley soprano obbligato. Adapted from a story by Nobel Prize winning author Alice Munro, the saga of a young woman’s early life on a prairie farm is simple and touching, and sometimes gruff and harsh.

Similarly, I Lost My Talk, again with Monique Mojica acting and dancing her central role, retains its impact in terms of John Estacio’s conventional yet imaginative music. Overall, his orchestration is the most sophisticated of the four composers being presented. And once again, the big percussion array leading to the conclusion was brilliantly effective in a cinematic way which matched well the dancing projected on the enormous cyclorama screen and front scrim which were in place for the entire evening. As I noted previously, the one weakness in I Lost My Talk is the rather dated, derivative choreography. While the choreographer, Santee Smith, and the dancers are First Nations people, the result was like something from a Hollywood movie decades ago. A work concerning a First Nations woman who literally loses her family’s native tongue in a residential school surely merits something better. In fact, the score as it currently exists could work well for a live dance production, should anyone wish to consider such.

The two works being seen for the first time were shorter and, being presented between Dear Life and I Lost My Talk, almost functioned as a slow movement then scherzo for a four-composer Symphony.

There was particular anticipation for Jocelyn Morlock’s My Name is Amanda Todd, envisioning events, thoughts and emotions of a girl, not yet sixteen, driven to suicide by cyber bullying – this was arguably the most concise and successful of the four works presented. Morlock’s score opens with sad strings which are neither melodramatic nor saccharine. After a while, the music develops an incessant quality which brilliantly telegraphs the reality of unrelenting bullying in a range of possible forms. Initial projections, by the Montreal group NORMAL (who provided video for the other three works), invoked the closing minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s Cinerama epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, though as the work advances, wide ranging computer-related imagery takes over. There is nothing random in the presentation which seemed almost spare in comparison with other works on the program and in the context of an enormous stage space. Compared to the other three works, My Name is Amanda Todd was a fine illustration that in the arts, less sometimes can be more, and even this aspect of it seems a particularly thoughtful tribute for the young woman whose tragic life is paid homage.

Next it was Nicole Lizée’s Bondarsphere, an unashamedly let-it-loose, stream-of-consciousness salute to Canada’s female astronaut, Roberta Bondar – who was in the audience and took a spot-lit bow from her centre orchestra seat when the evening later came to a conclusion. Bondarsphere is a hoot, to be sure. How could it not be when it includes veteran CBC newscasters Knowlton Nash and Peter Mansbridge on archive video being interrupted to have their mouthed sound bytes turned into electronic music via turntablism? (I hadn’t seen anything on stage like this since Robertson Davies’ disastrous 1975 play Question Time which featured videos of newscaster Lloyd Robertson who had recently jumped ship from the CBC to the CTV Network.) The music and visuals offer a millennium revisiting of filmmaker Norman McLaren’s Blinkity Blank and composer Hugh Le Caine’s Dripsody, both from Canada’s mid-1950s.

Overall, Bondarsphere could be described as brutalist punk satire and, to be sure, it generated lots of laughter and smiles among the audience. While the work was intended to celebrate Ms. Bondar’s courage, too often it was more something to celebrate a new year with ample supplies of friends and bubbly.

Whether any of these works finds a firm place in Canadian musical repertoire remains to be seen. However, all four make impressive statements and the combination of them in one evening is definitely something which cannot be ignored, even by those who might have a few reservations. NACO’s playing, Shelley’s conducting and the work of guest performers and the various collaborators was stellar throughout an evening which was both brilliant and entertaining.

Charles Pope Jr.



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