Esprit’s brassy Polaris

Tonight was the opening concert in Esprit’s Orchestra’s 32nd season. Esprit & their Music Director Alex Pauk are champions of new Canadian music, presented alongside excellent compositions from around the world.

Tonight’s program is a perfect illustration. The first half of the concert was imported from the UK and USA in the persons of Thomas Adès and Charles Ives, while the second half was made in Canada, namely Paul Frehner and Chris Paul Harman. Aside from Ives, the composers are young, all born since 1970.

I can’t help feeling nationalistic. We’ve had an all-Canadian cast (plus director) in a brilliant production of Falstaff from the Canadian Opera Company, a wonderful show from Alex Colville presented as though he were a peer of the artists preceding (Bacon & Moore) and following (Michaelangelo & Rodin) his show. I feel a comparable pride at the inevitable comparison, the Canadians showing they belong on the same program with Adès and Ives.

Thomas Adès’ Polaris (2010) led off. For this powerful piece, brass players are deployed in several places around the auditorium. It’s an old technique—putting me in mind of Gabrieli as well as R Murray Schafer—that certainly changes the way you listen, and stirs up an audience (many of whom craned their necks to follow the sounds coming from all sides and from behind). While my first thought was to ask myself sceptically whether this was nothing more than a gimmick, I repented quite soon. I suppose I’ve been fighting my attraction for the music of Adès since encountering (and railing against) his book, but every moment of this piece was truly beautiful. I am astonished at how well the music seemed to illustrate its subject, as if giving the music of the interconnected spheres rotating around the fixed point in the centre: Polaris the pole-star. At times the piece sounds like the most impressive test piece you’d take into an audio store when shopping for a stereo system (yes that dates me I suppose) , colours pulsing literally on all sides of you. While the notes in the program say the piece uses all twelve pitches, this is the least dissonant 12 tone piece I’ve ever encountered.

The next item was Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark (1906). The inclusion of such a piece is a helpful bit of calibration, given that a word like “new” is relative. There are elements in Ives’ composition that were surely more jarring if not revolutionary a hundred years ago, but now serve as a lovely touchstone of a composer’s adventurous spirit exploring sonorities & dramatic effects. This too is part of Esprit’s mission, both as a test of the chops of the orchestra’s players, and a bit of context for the newer music on the rest of the program. A year and a half ago I saw something similar, when Esprit Orchestra played a chamber version of Le Sacre du printemps on the centennial of Stravinsky’s seminal work. The Ives piece is a fascinating combination of extended atmospheric chords that wouldn’t be out of place in a Debussy prelude, gradually mocked by quotes of parts of the song you may know as “hello my baby”, the one sung by the frog in that unforgettable cartoon. 

After the interval we heard from Canadian composers. First up was Paul Frehner’s Phantom Suns (2012), a work I heard premiered at the concert I spoke of alongside Le Sacre. Coming back to it tonight it might be the context that throws me –and all the brass I heard in the other pieces—but somehow Pauk and Esprit seemed bolder this time, as though they decided to step on the gas, and really gun the engine. I recall a subtler softer piece last time, possibly because it seemed slim beside the muscles flexed in the performance of Le Sacre. Or perhaps with the second look at the work, and with all the big brassy moments on the rest of the program, the interpretation has changed.

Paul Frehner and Alex Pauk (photo: Jasmine Pauk)

Paul Frehner and Alex Pauk (photo: Jasmine Pauk)

Closing the program was Chris Paul Harman’s Coyote Soul (2011). We discovered in the pre-concert talk that “Coyote Soul” is an anagram for “Close to You”, a connection that turns up in the music eventually, as the Bacharach tune finally manifests itself. It’s one of the freshest sounding pieces I’ve heard in a very long time, utilizing an odd collection of instruments including recorders, whistles, harps, prepared piano plus the orchestra playing with great restraint. I was struck by how much new music can fall into regular procedures, of the standard dissonances & sonorities: and that Harman did not do any of that. This is a piece that really sounds fresh, that wasn’t pressured to be complex but

Composer Adam Scime

Composer Adam Scime

instead fed off the simplicity of the original tune. I have to wonder if the title is merely an anagram, given how well the title matches the mood of so much of the music. For all its freshness, when he finally tipped his hand and show us Bacharach I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t magic, even if it was a bit like a labyrinth of variations that only shows us its theme at the end rather than the beginning. I suppose sometimes I prefer to be lost.

Esprit continue their mission, championing new Canadian music on November 23rd, including two world premiere performances: Rise by Adam Scime and … just a stranger here… by Douglas Schmidt.

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1 Response to Esprit’s brassy Polaris

  1. Pingback: Talisker Players: Songs of Travel | barczablog

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