Tonight Esprit Orchestra, led by Conductor & Music Director Alex Pauk, marked the beginning of their 30th season with a program celebrating the excellence of Canadian music, a concert titled “The Tuning of the World”. Of the five items presented by EO, two were world premieres of works commissioned for the occasion, with the three living composers present to accept the audience’s grateful applause.
If commitment is the measure of an orchestra, Esprit are the finest ensemble in Toronto. Every moment of performance was urgent and intense, sometimes leavened with humour, and spiced with an affectionate rapport between the players and their public.
Koerner Hall was already energized by the launch of R Murray Schafer’s autobiography My Life on Earth & Elsewhere before the concert began. The centrepiece of the evening was the premiere of Schafer’s Wolf Returns, a composition lending a sense of occasion to Esprit’s celebration.
Wolf Returns brought some of Schafer’s site-specific energy into Koerner Hall, with five sections:
- Wolf Chant
- Chant for the Spirits of Hunted Animals
- Mosquito Chant
- Healing Chant
- Rain Chant
Each chant was supplied from the upper rear of the auditorium by a chorus often chanting unaccompanied. While Schafer has sometimes written edgy dissonant music, that’s not what you get with Wolf Returns, a composition feeling like a happy valedictory from a mature composer. The first few minutes are like a powerful toccata for full orchestra, tonal but syncopated. The voices from the back came and went throughout, deconstructing the formality of our concert experience, making the performance feel like a happening. While it may seem like an irrelevant consideration, I can’t help but think that Schafer’s fun and boisterous composition deserves to be heard and played by orchestras all over the world. I would think the aboriginal overtones of the chants and the frequent pentatonic sound make this a wonderfully accessible piece, especially congenial for an American audience, although I’d think the piece would be welcome anywhere. I hope to hear it again.
The most reflective composition of the evening came from Pauk’s partner Alexina Louie, namely O Magnum Mysterium: In Memoriam Glenn Gould, a 1982 composition presented in a 1999 re-orchestration. Originally conceived as a work for 44 soloists, I couldn’t help thinking of a similar piece, namely Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen. Like Strauss’s work, Louie’s composition is powerfully inter-textual, pushing our buttons with poignant quotes from other compositions. I may have been especially softened up, sitting 5 feet away from Louie, watching her face for much of the performance; I didn’t know the piece, so when it’s tranquil but profound ending snuck up on me, I was moved to tears, amplified by her reactions.
When I first read the program for the concert, the thing that won me over most emphatically was seeing Colin McPhee on the program. Sandy Thorburn posted a whimsical question on Facebook a year or two ago, asking us to nominate the greatest Canadian composer. After a few people posted some of the famous composer names I said Mychael Danna (nobody had posted a film music composer and HELLO Mr Danna isn’t just alive, he’s a colossal success). Then i posted McPhee, who may be relatively unknown but he’s my personal favourite.
McPhee is perhaps the most under-rated Canadian composer, known to have influenced Benjamin Britten’s composition of Death in Venice. He seems like a missing link in mid-century connecting Debussy (known to have been influenced by hearing Javanese gamelan music) and Glass, even if an unknown unheard composer can’t really be much of an influence, can he…(?)
This is my first time hearing Tabuh-Tabuhan in person, a piece i love to pieces. And maybe i am not the only one, as EO took up this score with visible delight. I always treasure moments when you see players’ heads bobbing or smiling; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many such moments as I did tonight. I couldn’t help thinking that Pauk gave us this bon bon as a special treat: one of the sweetest pieces I’ve ever heard, and by that I mean, phrases as cute as bunnies or kittens frolicking, endlessly curling arabesques of cuteness. EO played every note lovingly as if sprinkling us in icing sugar.
I don’t want to ignore the first two items on the program, although they were good rather than the ecstatic level I experienced in the last three items presented.
We began with John Rea’s marvellous Ikaros agog…Daidalos on edge, a work that is more symbolist than impressionist, taking us to the heart of some fascinating images. Daidalos is the great constructor who sadly lost his son when he flew too close to the sun, a kind of early Faustian bargain involving science. Speaking as one who is sometimes infatuated with technology, I believe I understand what Rea was hinting at in his program note and in his composition, that began with organic phrases in the strings resembling wind or breathing (both the outer and inner world at once) overcome more and more with mechanical rhythms and clockwork sounds. This understated work does feel like a cautionary tale, one that is contemporary yet universal.
Xenakis’ brief For the Whales followed, a wonderful etude for the strings, sounding very similar to the organic parts of Rea’s composition and therefore a logical work to follow it on the program.