“O Gamelan” is both José Evangelista’s composition & a handy name for tonight’s program by Esprit Orchestra, suggesting a genuine reverence for the Balinese ensemble of that name. Many of the works on the program employed some or all of the players of Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, in various constellations of players & instrumentation. In addition we were treated to a dance performance from Evie Suyadnyani, World Music Visitor at the U of T‘s Faculty of Music (which is perhaps one reason I saw the Dean of the Faculty in attendance). My head is still buzzing in a good way from this exquisitely intercultural experience.
We began & ended with orchestral works invoking gamelan sounds via conventional western instruments. Echo Spirit Isle (1983), a work by Alex Pauk (composer & also the conductor & artistic director of Esprit) started us off. When the orchestra was playing repeated notes (aka ostinati) I thought of Colin McPhee, a composer whose works suggest Balinese music. Pauk also generated some big tutti, and passages of neutral colour something like washes of colour on paper. Pauk’s work was one of the bookends for the evening. Claude Vivier’s Pulau Dewata (1977), which closed the concert, also had me in mind of McPhee: which is to say that some of the passages sound like attempts to echo or even transcribe a gamelan’s timbres and effects using conventional instrumentation.
Chan Ka Nin’s Éveil aux oiseaux (2005) employed eleven members of Esprit + nine gamelan instruments played by Evergreen personnel. At times they blend, at other times there are distinct differences in the ways each culture’s instruments are used. Several moments are wonderfully ambiguous, creating sounds and combinations that are hard to place, delightfully disorienting. The first sounds we hear reminded me of the deep Tibetan horn-sound associated with Buddhist ceremonies, a sound that gave me chills immediately. In an evening where Gamelan sounds seemed to instantly guarantee entry into the spirit of another culture, this composition was for me the most authentic, precisely because I couldn’t place it within any culture, any particular place or time. Very impressive!
Next came something absolutely different in every respect. Lou Harrison’s Threnody for Carlos Chavez for viola and gamelan (1978) suddenly brought us into something intimate and the most tonal work we’d hear all night. Violist Douglas Perry stood alongside seven of the Evergreen players, as he played something resembling a folk song, accompanied by the most delicate sounds I think I’ve ever heard from Evergreen. For all intents & purposes, this is a thoroughly sensuous song, with an accompaniment that likely could be handled by one or two players, but instead flitting around seven different players.
Then we came to the work giving its title to the concert, namely José Evangelista’s O Gamelan, using a modern orchestra to suggest the magical sounds of a gamelan. I was at times unable to figure out what instruments were playing to create the timbres. Evangelista speaks of the gamelan as a goal, suggesting that its sound is an ideal.
My favourite piece on the program was from André Ristic, a work titled Project “Peuple” for gamelan & ensemble. It’s a spectacularly clever composition. If I were to quote the composer’s program notes to describe its ambitions you would likely be struck by the wit of the composer.
Two groups of individuals (the gamelan percussions and winds) are trying to find a “meeting point” through the inspiration provided by a “leader” (the double bass). They succeed and the leader goes despotic.
Ristic refers to the concerto, in looking at the interactions of these musical forces. The only work I can think of that’s comparable is Berlioz’s Harolde en Italie, a concerto that dramatizes the Byronic hero using a viola & orchestra. Why am I not surprised that Ristic is from the former Yugoslavia? I’ve met so many from this country whose well-developed political awareness boils over in the arts. At the beginning, the groups of instruments –the western gang & the gamelan—are like political cartoons, satirical caricatures of two wildly disparate groups unable to communicate. Gradually the double bass asserts itself, leading to one of the most delicious bits of comic virtuosity I’ve ever heard & seen, the bass player like a ferocious demagogue with a bow.
Esprit return January 26th, 2014 with a program titled “Strange Matter”
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