Three conductors for three challenging pieces
Roy Thomson Hall
Brian Current: Three Pieces for Orchestra
Vincent Ho: City Suite: Concerto for Amplified Cello and Orchestra
John Adams: Absolute Jest for String Quartet and Orchestra
Shauna Rolston (cello), The St. Lawrence String Quartet
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian, Gary Kulesha, John Adams (conductors)
This final program of the New Creations Festival opened with the world premiere of Brian Current’s Three Pieces for Orchestra. The first piece, “Earth so much like Heaven, Heaven so much like Earth,” opens with sparkly sounds evolving toward a two-layered texture with strings playing the lower line, resulting in sounds reminiscent of Messiaen. After a period of stasis the music becomes more insistent, even grating, before diminishing. The second piece, “Without Grace the Universe is just an Explosion”, has overlapping lines that ripple and burble along, leading to a jazzy section. Various groups of instruments seem to converse (sometimes noisily) before it, like the first piece, dwindles away. The third piece, “Motion is the Default State”, features a pulsating sweep that zooms through the orchestra becoming more insistent until the huge, crashing finish.
Conductor Peter Oundjian described the work as “grand and extroverted” (which it is) and a fine way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the New Creations Festival.
The second piece was Vincent Ho’s City Suite: Concerto for Amplified Cello and Orchestra, with the ever-game Shauna Rolston played her trademark carbon fibre cello to which an electronic pickup was attached. The work (from 2011) was premiered at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival in 2012. The 33-minute piece chronicles the composer working through a period of sadness while he contemplates and analyzes the city (the city in question happens to be Toronto, but it could simply be The City). He was influenced by John Adams’ City Noir and Edward Hopper’s iconic painting Nighthawks.
The first movement, “Dusk”, opens with the solo cello with orchestral interjections. After a good deal of musical rumination , the movement ends with a metallic thud. The second movement, “Overdrive”, begins with a relentless bombardment from the cello and adds up to a rather grim view of urban busyness. The cello’s soft passage come across well.
The third movement, “Nighthawks” begins with sounds that to me evoked the seashore; there is nice use of gongs and other percussion. There is a grand and plaintive cello part played against suggestive phrases from the piano; conductor Gary Kulesha held a notably long silence at the end. The final movement, “New Dawn”, features the piano again in tentative, simple “walking” phrases while the cello is given playful, syncopated phrases. A new section builds to a very big sound (here is where an unamplified cello might have been swamped) - it becomes rather Mahleresque, with a big resolution. A coda has the cellist playing busy notes against the piano’s saunter; a major “ka-blam!” ends the work.
Intermission discussion (which was lively - this festival seems to have found a highly engaged audience) was divided over this piece - merely loud and empty or a set of statement from a composer with something to say? I’m with the latter view - the work certainly has more going for it than last year’s crowd-sourced A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City by Tod Machover. Still, I question the amplification of the cello; in only one section of the work was it overwhelmed by thick orchestration - the rest of the time it sounded like a recording where the instrument was placed too far forward. However, the amplification does give certain resonances greater presence, as when lower notes sound more like a double bass.
John Adams and the St. Lawrence String Quartet preceded Absolute Jest with a sampling of excerpts from works by Beethoven which Adams used as he created this work; they focussed on stretches from two of the late string quartets, Opus 131 and 135. Adams writes that he was stimulated by Stravinsky’s use of pieces by Pergolesi and others when composing Pulcinella, but describes his own use of Beethoven as “riffing” versus creating variations or a fantasy. The work turns out to be quite the musical maelstrom; just when you think you have a grasp of a phrase (“aha! - there’s the scherzo from Beethoven’s <>Symphony No. 8!”) the piece gallops or saunters off in another direction. The quartet’s leader, Geoff Nuttall, seemed to be engaged in a hoedown much of the time. Adams employs the word “jest” in the meaning of “exploits”, which makes a lot of sense. He works flails spasmodically toward an end with gongs and bells. Mark Grey was credited as "sound designer" and there were speakers placed in front of the orchestra but I couldn't discern what difference these made. The piece is an exhilarating 22 minutes rather much to take in on just one hearing. The audience ate it up.