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An evening of cross-currents

Koerner Hall
04/15/2018 -  
Fuhong Shi: Concentric Circles
Chris Paul Harmon: ...with silver bells and cockle shells...
Scott Wilson: Dark Matter
Maki Ishii: Mono-Prism

Shannon Mercer (soprano), Nagata Shachu (drummers)
Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk (conductor)

(© Malcolm Cook)

Esprit Orchestra’s 35th season concluded with a program titled “Taiko Plus!” featuring two world premieres from Canadian composers and two works from Asian composers being given their Canadian premieres.

The concert opened with Fuhon Shi’s Concentric Circles (composed in 2009), a work inspired by the I Ching, the earliest known source of the complementary concepts of Yin and Yang. It has four linked movements: Great Yin, Lesser Yang, Lesser Yin, and Great Yang. It opens quietly with the highest notes from a double bass, builds expansively and contains a range of effects that lead to a big climax. For a work expressing such huge concepts its brevity came as a surprise - it’s just over five minutes long. Fuhon Shi was present - and she seemed surprised at the audience’s enthusiastic reception.

Chris Paul Harmon’s ...with silver bells and cockle shells... is a treatment of 25 children’s songs selected from the 169 published in The Big Book of Nursery Rhymes and Children’s Songs. It opens with the lullaby “All the Pretty Little Horses” and concludes mock-dramatically with “Who Killed Cock Robin?” The episode when the cow jumps over the moon is particularly rapturous. Occasional high-pitched sections cover the voice, but the ever-stalwart soprano Shannon Mercer ably encompasses the shifting moods within the 25-minute work, which could well be categorized with Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs.

The title of Scott Wilson’s Dark Matter refers to the head-bending cosmological concept describing the invisible forces holding the universe together. Its creation involved CERN, the European centre for nuclear research near Geneva, Switzerland, plus the Birmingham Ensemble for Electroacoustic Research (or BEER - this is not a joke) at the University of Birmingham, UK, which presumably was the source of the video projection that accompanied the work (although I think its more accurate to say that the visuals and music together make up the work).

The work has three movements: Clouds, with visuals that illustrate the juxtaposition of high- and low-pitched passages; Particles, with music and visuals that pulsate and swirl; and Tapestries, with crystalline sonics and visuals. Electronic sounds complementing the orchestral music emerged from eight speakers arranged around the hall. At times the effect resembled that of the Ligeti music used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, an influence that is hard to avoid.

Japanese composer Maki Ishii (1936-2003) composed Mono-Prism for western-style symphony orchestra and Japanese Taiko (drumming) group in 1976. The title calls attention to the polarities achieved by traditional Japanese drumming (i.e., very loud - thus the “mono” in the title) juxtaposed with the great range of sonic effect inherent in the symphony orchestra (thus the “prism”). Nagata Shachu is a seven-member Taiko group based in Toronto under its founder Kiyoshi Nagata (Shachu means group). For this work the group performed on seven smallish drums called shime-daiko, one very large double-sided drum (O-daiko) and, finally, three medium-size drums, Chichibu-daiko (see photo above).

The drums certainly have a visceral effect, especially when the O-daiko is being struck by two drummers, one on each side. The 15-minute work begins quietly, with small sounds from both orchestra and drums. The sound level swells, then fluctuates, and there is fascinating interplay between the two groups. The intensity builds, though, to what amounts to a decibel-battle which the drums win. Overall, though, this is an exhilarating work which truly demonstrates a positive result of cross-fertilization. With Nagata Shochu conveniently at hand, regular symphony orchestras would do well to program it - and enjoy the enthusiastic response the work received at this concert.

Michael Johnson



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