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New creations with a Canadian slant

Roy Thomson Hall
03/04/2017 -  
Andrew Staniland: Reflections on “O Canada” After Truth and Reconciliation: Sesquie for Canada’s 150th
Jörg Widmann: Trauermarsch for Piano and Orchestra
Jordan Pal: Iris
Tanya Takaq, Christine Duncan, Jean Martin: Qiksaaktuq (orch. Christopher Mayo)

Yefim Bronfman (Piano), Tanya Tagaq (vocalist)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian, André de Ridder (conductors), Christine Duncan (improvisation leader)

T. Tagaq (© Katrin Naleid)

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s 13th annual New Creations Festival, this year curated by composer Owen Pallett, opened with a concert featuring three world premiere performances by Canadian composers plus a TSO co-commission from Jörg Widmann.

We will be hearing a lot of new Canadian work in the next year or so as 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation. The federal government has earmarked $210 million for sesquicentennial celebrations, and the TSO has managed to get $7.5 million of this. Some of the money will go to works shared with 40 other orchestras across the country in a project called “Canada 150 Musical Mosaic”.

Among the many commissions is a series of two-minute concert openers dubbed “sesquies” (from “sesquicentennial”). This concert opened with one from Andrew Staniland, Reflections on “O Canada” After Truth and Reconciliation, referring to the ongoing nation-wide process involving some 2000 murdered and missing aboriginal women. This is quite a big (and very much unresolved) topic for a musical composition, let alone one of just two minutes duration. The work opens and closes with the bold chords used by Beethoven in his “Eroica” Symphony, another work composed with a political statement in mind. But then the central part of Staniland’s work contains four rather ethereal canonic variations for high strings on the national anthem - an expression of the “shame and sadness” the composer felt on contemplating the Truth and Reconciliation report.

The sesquies are meant to be fanfares or the equivalent, an arguably outdated concept in an era when serious composers (which is pretty much all of them) would prefer to work on something probing or ironic rather than celebrational. We will see how this unfolds.

The only non-Canadian work on the program was Jörg Widmann’s Trauermarsch for Piano and Orchestra, a co-commission with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Widmann’s star is rising high, as evidenced by this work’s already impressive performance history. It was premiered in Berlin in 2014 and had also been performed in San Francisco, Cleveland, and Boston, always with pianist Yefim Bronfman for whom it was written.

Trauer means “mourning” and it truly is a solemn piece, with a Bergian tristesse. It is not a piano concerto in the bravura, almost combative sense of the term; the piano part is more embedded in the orchestra. At points the work almost departs from its bleak soundscape and seems to strive toward a climax, only to fall back. It ended with a very long silence held by Peter Oundjian and respected by the attentive, near-capacity audience.

34-year-old Jordan Pal is the TSO’s current affiliate composer and his 10-minute work Iris (the title refers to the rainbow rainbow) is a shimmering exercise in orchestral colour, n some ways a successor to Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. A thunder sheet adds to the overall effect. It builds to an impressive climax followed by a tranquil coda.

The topic of the murdered and missing aboriginal women returned in more emotive, personal fashion with Tanya Takaq’s Qiksaaktuq (the word means “grief” in the Inukitut language, Ms Takaq’s native tongue). Its creation was a complex collaboration among four people: composer Jean Martin has worked with Takag over a period of years, and combined sections of her works, orchestrating them with the help of Christopher Mayo. The fourth team member, Christine Duncan, was in charge of the brass section which she guided while German guest conductor André de Ridder led the rest of the orchestra. Tanya Tagaq improvised her own vocal performance, while the brass added semi-improvised punctuation.

The work is in five movements following the well-known five stages of grief outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The music plunges, scampers, shouts, wails and gasps. Takaq’s technique recalls Yma Sumac and Diamanda Galás. The “depression” section evokes obsessive-compulsive disorder (very effective). It certainly engaged the audience, who responded with terrific enthusiasm.

I suspect Qiksaaktuq will turn out to be a work in progress. The Truth and Reconciliation process still has a long way to go. I can’t speak for Ms. Tagaq but I don’t think the time for acceptance has yet arrived.

Michael Johnson



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