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A gala start to the 30th season

Koerner Hall
10/14/2012 -  
John Rea: Ikaros agog ... Daidolos on edge
Iannis Xenakis For the Whales
R. Murray Schafer: Wolf Returns
Alexina Louie: O Magnum Mysterium: In Memoriam Glenn Gould
Colin McPhee: Tabuh-Tabuhan

The Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk (Conductor)

R. Murray Schafer (Courtesy of Esprit Orchestra)

Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra opened its 30th season with an exuberant program featuring two world premieres to add to its impressive list of some 170 new works.

Opening was John Rea’s new Ikaros agog ... Daidalos on edge, a 25-minute evocation of the mythic doomed flight of Ikarus as his father looks on. Rea has designed floating, airy sounds for full orchestra (68 members) and the piece subtly describes first the ascent and then descent, concluding with - what? - evaporation? I think I heard the four fatal notes from Beethoven’s 5th symphony at one point. The composer’s notes give no information on the ideas behind the orchestration, but I can’t help feeling there is some degree of gamelan influence there.

Also: one couldn’t help but be reminded of Felix Baumgarten’s successful ascent and descent earlier in the day.

This was followed by another evocative tone picture, Iannis Xenakis’s For the Whales, a piece barely three minutes long composed in 1982 as part of a benefit project for Greenpeace. It conjures up the depths of the sea with its throbbing undertones. It is one of many works inspired by then-new recordings of whale communications. The presence of the Xenakis work reminds as that, while the main objective of the Esprit Orchestra has been to showcase new works by Canadian composers, the concerts feature works by international composers as well.

The second new work on the program was R. Murray Schafer’s Wolf Returns which consists of series of five chants by a group of 23 men and women who gather annually for an eight-day ritual in the Ontario wilderness. It is taken from a long work called And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, which itself is the epilogue to Schafer’s Patria cycle of 12 large-scale dramatic works many of which are designed to be performed out of doors. (Schafer, now 79, started composing the cycle in 1966).

The five chanting sections are interspersed with orchestral sections that conjure up the aggressive noises of the city. I couldn’t help being reminded of film music of the 40s and 50s when blaring traffic on busy streets was depicted, while the chanting was reminiscent of scout camp. There is something naive about the piece - no doubt one of the composer’s objectives. One of the chants is aimed at keeping mosquitoes away (in Canada? - pardon my scepticism).

(Aside from the concert, the evening also featured the launch of Mr Schafer’s latest book - his autobiography, My Life on Earth and Elsewhere.)

The highlight of the concert turned to be a revisiting of a piece composed 30 years ago, Alexina Louie’s O Magnum Mysterium: In Memoriam Glenn Gould. The composer had been commissioned to write a piece for McGill University’s string orchestra when Glenn Gould suddenly died, so Louie incorporated quotes from works by Bach that were so central to Gould’s musical life, as well as a final reference to Mahler’s "Der Abschied" from Das Lied von der Erde. The 12-minute work performed by 34 string players was given an absolutely hypnotic performance, achieving a dreamlike clarity.

Compared to most contemporary works (let’s face it, production outstrips demand not just in Canada but everywhere), O Magnum Mysterium has had enough exposure to justify it being called a modern classic. In addition to many concert performances, it has been used as the score for the ballet One Hundred Words for Snow, choreographed by Dominique Dumais for the National Ballet of Canada.

The concert ended with a revisit of an avant garde work from 1936, Colin McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan. McPhee (1900-1964) was a Canadian-born, later US-based, composer, teacher and critic who went to Bali in the 30s and immersed himself in the various approaches to the gamelan music of the island. He influenced Benjamin Britten and others who incorporated gamelan sounds in their works. He is also credited in Bali with spearheading a revival of the form.

The title refers to the use of mallets and the resulting rhythms in gamelan music. The work was premiered in Mexico City under Carlos Chavez - and then, like so many innovative compositions, had to wait ten years for a second performance. It was recorded in 1995 by the Esprit Orchestra.

The 17-minute work is in three movements (Ostinatos - Nocturne - Finale). In light of so much subsequent gamelan-influenced music, the Balinese sections in the first two movements seem a bit tidily wrapped up. The nocturne has a Ravelian sound and is interestingly varied, using a Balinese tune for the flute. McPhee’s own notes are printed in the program and he refers to his use of jazz - this certainly shows up in the Gershwinesque climax to the finale.

There were also brief speeches expressing a degree of dismay at the passage of time since the founding of this orchestra devoted entirely to contemporary music (and not of the popular variety) - and delight that it has survived, and even flourished. Founding conductor Alex Pauk and the board deserve full credit for staying the course.

Michael Johnson



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