There were three items on the Esprit Orchestra program tonight in Koerner Hall, interconnected by the laws of physics.
The center-piece was a performance of a reduced version of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps on the occasion of its centennial. Beginning the program was Claude Vivier’s Orion. In between was an original commission from Esprit, namely Paul Frehner’s Phantom Suns in its world premiere.
In the pre-concert talk, Alexina Louie interviewed Frehner, who discussed his creative process. Commissioned to share the bill with two relative heavy-weights (Vivier being a big name among Canadian composers, Stravinsky’s piece being one of the masterworks of the past century), Frehner described his thinking. Whereas Orion is of the stars and Le Sacre is of the Earth, Frehner thought he’d aim for the sky in between.
The Phantom Suns of his composition are the phenomenon known as ‘parhelia’ (or ‘parhelion’ in the singular), also known as ‘sun dogs’, a kind of mirage in the sky seen near the sun whereby we seem to see multiple suns. In some respects his composition showed us something just like that, as the soundscape resembled a sky awash with colours and light, as if the score had been coloured with a bright paint. Frehner’s composition seemed to be conceived as a kind of intermezzo between two very different pieces.
To begin the evening , we heard Vivier’s Orion, a piece that I found to be the most successful piece on the program, in a reading of great transparency, wonderfully balanced and with a terrific sense of nuance. From Louie’s words I believe Conductor & Artistic Director Alex Pauk has great sympathy for Vivier, whose life story is itself a fascinating piece of subtext for any performance of his music. Adopted at three, gay, a successful composer recognized in his youth, but murdered at 34, Vivier’s star continues to rise worldwide. Pauk found the wit, humour & verve in this composition, and it was clear the orchestra was enjoying itself throughout.
To close the program we heard a version of Le Sacre du Printemps for reduced orchestra arranged by Jonathan McPhee. This is the loudest music I’ve yet heard in Koerner Hall, reduced forces notwithstanding.
At this moment Esprit was at their source, the beginning of “New Music”. The Toronto Symphony plays Le Sacre, and everyone has heard this piece and knows its edgy moments. This time we weren’t hearing an orchestra that makes its money with Beethoven and Mozart taking a walk on the wild side; no, we were hearing an ensemble accustomed to contemporary sounds & procedures, in effect letting their hair down, returning to their roots.
It was well-received by the Esprit audience, a powerful performance that belied the numbers. At times Pauk had Esprit sounding like impressionists, the strings subtle, the woodwinds delicate, at other times the room rocked to the fulsome brass, the rhythmic pulses, the pounding percussion. At this moment in Esprit’s 30th anniversary season, it’s worthwhile for them to check in with this piece that lets us hear them play repertoire you’d hear from the TSO. Even with the smaller ensemble, the pristine acoustic of Koerner Hall captured their brazen & blatant sounds. In so doing Esprit convincingly laid claim to this repertoire.
Esprit continue their 30th Anniversary Season March 28th.