How to thrill an audience
Roy Thomson Hall
John Adams: Slonimsky’s Earbox
Daníel Bjarnason: Bow to String
Zosha di Castri: Lineage
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Violin Concerto (*)
Saeunn Thorsteinsdóttir (cello), Leila Josefowicz (violin)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, John Adams, Peter Oundjian (*) (conductors)
This second concert of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s 10th New Creations Festival turned out to be one of significant musical substance. The works were chosen by this year’s featured composer (thus also curator), John Adams, who returns for the second time in this role.
The concert opened with Adams’ Slonimsky’s Earbox, a 1995 work named in honour of composer/conductor/musicologist/teacher Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995) who Adams had the pleasure and good fortune to know personally. In the piece the composer pays tribute to Igor Stravinsky - he cites the opening of The Song of the Nightingale as the model for the “exploding” (his apt term) start to this work. It works through Adamsian rhythmic modulations and features a bluesy section. Overall, a vibrant and entertaining (I don’t mean this as a drawback) work.
Daníel Bjarnason is a 35-year-old Icelandic composer whose work was brought to John Adams’ attention by Nico Muhly. Bow to String could well be titled Cello Concerto despite the fact it is not in strict concerto form. The work exists in “eight or ten versions” (according to the composer) designed for various venues and for the studio recording with which Muhly and Adams became acquainted with the piece. Here it was set on a 23-member orchestra which included a prepared piano with a subterranean tone. It is in three movements: first, “Sorrow Conquers Happiness: Fast”, starting with hard-driving cello leading to what I can only describe as a “wistful struggle” and a haunting end. The second, “Blood to Bones: Laid back” features strumming by the cellist, a melancholy swaying melody and discreet gongs. The third, “Air to Breathe: Calm and free” is hauntingly lovely; a bowed xylophone provides a distant counterpoint to the cello part. Cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdóttir reveals full expressionist control of her instrument - watch for her!
Canadian Zosha di Castri’s Lineage was premiered by the New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, who subsequently took it to his San Francisco orchestra. She was inspired by her grandparents’ reminiscences of “the old country” which results in (in her words) “a re-imagining of places and traditions I’ve known only second hand”. I can’t say it conjured up any place or ethnicity for me, but it certainly displays very effective use of a large orchestra used in its various sections. An absorbing, 11-minute piece.
The finale of the evening turned out to be a major work indeed, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto composed in 2008-2009 in partnership with Leila Josefowicz who is so far the only violinist to have tackled the work. I can see why some might find it daunting in that the violinist plays non-stop until the end of the third movement when there is finally a chance to retune. The first two linked movements (“Mirage” and “Pulse I”) conjure up a reverie. Movement III (“Pulse II”) builds to a symphonic rumble à la Bernstein’s sharks versus the jets (the composer describes the music as “urban, heavily leaning towards popular culture”). Movement IV (“Adieu”) builds to a big climax followed by a nocturnal rather mystery-laden episode, ending with a chord described by Salonen as “completely different from all other harmony in the piece”. Like di Castri’s work, it requires a large orchestra that is used sparingly through modt of its length. Leila Josefowicz (who doesn’t look old enough to have made her TSO debut 23 years ago - although she was just in her teens) brought a riveting focus and élan to the performance.
All but the Bjarnason work were Canadian premieres. Three of the four composers were present (Salonen the only absence). The audience welcomed it all.
The festival opened March 1 with Peter Oundjian conductiong John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony, Magnus Lindberg’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (Yefim Bronfman, soloist) and TSO affiliate composer Kevin Lau’s Down the Rivers of the Windfall Light.