Today’s free concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre was an opportunity to hear composers John Adams and Hans Thomalla. We heard them speak and then we heard their music.
The RBA is not to be confused with an ideal concert space. It’s really a lobby space. We either sit on an inclined plane –a staircase— or stand on the surrounding lobby space leaning against the railing to look downwards at performers.
Visually it may be the most beautiful place in the whole city. Okay, quote me. Yes, I think that when you add the music and the intimate views of say a Thomas Allen or a Topher Mokrzewski or any of the other artists singing at the COC’s noon-hour concert series? It’s almost forgotten that we’re floating in the sky while staring through glass at the commerce of the city, underscored by marvellous soundtracks like the ones we had today. We watched a protest passing the American Consulate in front of us on University Ave, moving turbulently past us, but still only a ripple on the surface of our hour-long concert.
And the sound? As your real estate agent will tell you, it depends on location. And it also depends on what you’re hearing. Last week’s gentle strumming of La Dafne was sucked up by the somewhat dry acoustic. It’s a great space to hear singers, whereas I’m not sure it always serves instrumentalists well. We hear detail with almost clinical precision, which is terrific when you’re hearing the finest voices or the best players in the country. Ah but one could wish for a bit more warmth, though, especially listening to an instrumental concert such as today’s.
A pair of pianists played a pair of pianos that weren’t quite identical (one lidless, one with its lid open). Each of Claudia Chan and Ryan MacEvoy McCullough has a personal connection to one of the composers, as we heard in the introductions.
Adams spoke first, explaining his connection to the young McCullough –whom he’s known for five years—and decoding the title to the first item on the program, namely “Hallelujah Junction”. Adams told us that it an actual place, and that he recalled thinking that it caught his attention as a possible title before there was a composition of that name. The word “hallelujah” seems to have been a definite inspiration to the composer, a rhythm that figures in the piece. Adams liked the phrase so much he used it again for a recent book he wrote as well.
I was mindful of the RBA acoustic during the performance of HJ. The piece is so full of detail, especially when the players are just slightly out of phase with one another, that it challenges the ear in more reverberant spaces: although perhaps Adams approves of that sort of effect.
Next up was Hans Thomalla’s Noema, a work that is like yin to HJ’s yang. Where the Adams piece is tonal, at times wonderfully tuneful and full of soul, Thomalla’s work feels like an experiment, a challenge as much to the listener as to the player, asking for a prepared piano, a few plucked notes, glissandi and even a few clusters played by forearm. Thomalla told us he had been thinking of romantic composers’ etudes, citing Czerny & Liszt. There were a few moments when one could hear something allusive without really being imitative, like shards of a picture painted on glass that had been smashed, flashback memories rather than full-out quotes. I felt Noema resembled more of an installation than a composition, a series of effects and moments, some of which were rather intriguing and clever. Considering what the title means –for example one definition says “the object of thought”—I can scarcely be surprised that this music seems highly reified, so abstracted as to be an idea of a composition as much as it’s an actual composition.
CC & RMM gave a wonderfully clear account of Adams’ piece, full of youthful energy. In the second work I was fascinated by the dynamics between them, making unique and diverse events out of the different parts of Thomalla’s piece.
For more about the pianists check out their websites: