Esprit’s McPhee

I picked up Esprit Orchestra’s CBC recording of Colin McPhee in the lobby at one of their concerts earlier this year.  I’d reviewed their live performance in October of Tabuh-tabuhan (1936) a reading of such playful energy that there was no mistaking their enjoyment, right down to the beatific smiles back and forth between the members of the orchestra.  They love this piece, and it shows in their performance.

Ditto on the CD.

Alex Pauk

Alex Pauk

Alex Pauk leads readings of great clarity, energetic yet as tranquil as leaves flickering in sunlight.

McPhee should be better known, a composer one might be tempted to call a minimalist . There’s the same de-emphasis on harmonic development, in favour of rhythmic activity that one finds in such composers as Philip Glass.  McPhee spent time transcribing Balinese music, going on to write works influenced by their style while using a modern orchestra rather than instruments from the East.  If Glass or Reich or any of their peers had heard McPhee he’d surely be understood as an influence, and thereby recognized as a hugely important composer, certainly the most influential of all Canadian composers.  McPhee did influence Benjamin Britten, but as far as the minimalist movement is concerned, they seemed to find their idiom without any help from the Canadian.  Does influence matter? perhaps in some circles of musicology.  All i know is that McPhee is one of my favourite composers.

The CD (all compositions by Colin McPhee) includes

  • Symphony #2 (1967) 
  • Concerto for Wind Orchestra (1960) 
  • Transitions for Orchestra (1954)
  • Tabuh-tabuhan (1936): the work that gives its name to the CD
  • Nocturne (1958)

It’s one of the most delightfully relaxing CDs I own, meditative and oozing charm.

One of the things I especially admire about Pauk & Esprit are the way they program music.  This week they’ll be offering orchestrated versions of Jimi Hendrix and Marius Constant’s theme from The Twilight Zone, on the occasion of Esprit’s 30th Anniversary.  Pauk is a man with a mission, as captured on the occasion of an interview he gave last year:

Esprit’s relevance to modern man has to do with keeping us abreast of recent trends in music and the relationships of that music to how we think about our present condition. By way of comparison, we don’t expect doctors to use medical equipment from the 1800s in their practices today, so why should we expect musicians to only perform music from the past? I enter into my work with Esprit with a sense of adventure and discovery and I want my artistic colleagues, as well as audiences, to share in that experience. While there is sometimes a degree of entertainment value in what we do, the idea of moving music forward in a pure sense is important. We aim to provide a sensual experience as well as an intellectual one – one that relates to life in a meaningful way today.


Esprit Esprit Orchestra end their 30th Anniversary Season with a concert Thursday March 28th Esprit Orchestra, 30 and Counting!, at Koerner Hall, March 28, 8 p.m.



ERIK ROSS Burn* concerto for saxophone, percussion and orchestra
MARIUS CONSTANT TW. Z. (The Twilight Zone)
*Esprit Commission and World Premiere
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1 Response to Esprit’s McPhee

  1. Pingback: The Geneology of Minimalism | barczablog

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