TSO – Fragile Absolute

The Toronto Symphony’s three-concert New Creations Festival launched in impressive fashion tonight, a spectacular variety of styles on display in a programme with the title “Fragile Absolute”.

Before the interval felt like personal testimony from the festival’s curator Brett Dean. We segued from a mysterious performance of Kurtág’s Ligatura: Message-Hommage à Frances-Marie Uitti (The Answered Unanswered Question) without interruption, directly into Dean’s Violin Concerto. In his pre-concert remarks Dean mentioned that Kurtág had been a key influence on him, which could perhaps help decode the mystery. We heard the Kurtág –a work for two cellos, two violins and celesta—played with the four string players off-stage, and the house lights and stage lights dimmed.  The music emanated around us without a visible source. I have to think that Dean sees himself influenced by Kurtág, such that his own music seemed to come right out of the other composition, almost as if they were one idea. At the very least Dean was making a self-reflexive statement.

Dean’s concerto is a splendid composition, three very different movements. The use of the viola was at times very plaintive, the composer himself acting as soloist in a reading that must surely be authoritative.

I listened to Dean’s varied sounds, sometimes almost impressionistic and colourful, forcing me to stare desperately from player to player, trying to figure out how he achieved such subtleties of timbre. I found myself thinking “orchestration!”, impressed by his mastery of sound. Although the movements vary, from the rhetorical manner of the first movement, to the energized second, and the deeply internalized third, Dean’s viola seemed like a character in a drama.

After the interval –during which we watched a big and complicated set-up of instruments—Dean’s countryman Anthony Pateras took the stage as part of the ensemble for the North American premiere of his 2010 piece Fragile Absolute, for Winds, Percussion, Electronics and Celesta, the work giving the evening its title. I think I understand “fragile absolute” to mean that the composer had set out to let the work’s structure function in very arbitrary terms: but that exigencies conspired to compromise those plans, making the absolute—his a priori objectives—fragile, as I suspect they always are when confronted by de facto.

Pateras told us in the introductory conversation that he was influenced by Bartók’s composition Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Here we were in the presence of a mass of brass & percussion without strings, but with some electronics, and with continuous action from a very busy celesta player, so much so that it could be a concerto for celesta. Where Dean’s piece had been a subtle surface of quiet murmurings, a composition that seemed internalized (much like the Kurtág), Pateras’s work was much more an extroverted exploration and seemed to be a deliberate contrast to what came before. Groups of instruments repeated patterns within a narrow band of notes, sometimes swelling in flamboyant effusion while at other times the music mostly dropped away. The celesta kept bubbling along, occasionally joined by percussion & either or both of two pianos.

In our recent interview I’d asked James Ledger about what might be a typical Australian trait in the music he and/or his countrymen compose, to which he spoke of a time when he’d been told that “only an Australian could have composed it”, possibly because distance gives them freedom, and likely less than the usual anxiety of influence. In the two pieces I’d heard so far by Australians – that is, Dean’s viola concerto and Pateras’s Fragile Absolute the music seemed to escape sounding like the typical compositions understood by the epithet “new music”. In tonight’s concert I felt a great deal of freedom.

resized  Kevin_Lau_photo_by_Bo_Huang

Composer & pianist Kevin Lau (photo: Bo Huang)

Last on the program was a World Premiere/TSO Commission by a young Canadian that brought the audience to their feet, a definite crowd pleaser from Kevin Lau titled Concerto Grosso for Orchestra String Quartet, and Turntables. My appetite was already whetted for the piece by a conversation I’d had on the bus with the cellist Adrian Fung, who also happens to be the TSO’s VP of Innovation, a musician with an MBA.  At the time I heard about Spin Cycle, an ambitious composition aiming towards an integration of styles & musical ideas that led to a JUNO nomination. Lau is on to the next stage with his Concerto Grosso, another fascinating investigation of the fusion of styles.

Forgive me if I digress for a moment, but it amazes me when I see parallel actions among several artists, as though their preoccupation has become suddenly universal

  • In Going Home Star the Royal Winnipeg Ballet brought together composer Christos Hatzis and several aboriginal musical voices seeking to embody the process of reconciliation onstage.
  • Stephanie Martin’s choral symphony Babel concerns the (im)possibility of communication
  • James Ledger’s piece to be presented next Wednesday at this same festival –his Two Memorials: Anton Webern & John Lennon—is a composition that seeks a reconciliation or at least a mix between two very different sound-worlds

And latent in Lau’s work is a question that I posed to Ledger, concerning popularity. Had I heard what Lau had composed I would have asked him the same question I fired at Ledger, concerning a piece juxtaposing austere Anton Webern and popular John Lennon, namely to ask how he feels about popular music. But the answer is right there in the music, where Lau seems very comfortable in tonality and popular sounds, possibly because he also writes film-scores, a medium that isn’t afraid of tonality or unabashed beauty.
I would love to hear the Concerto Grosso again, a piece that galvanized the audience. Lau takes us on a wonderful journey, juxtaposing the sounds of an orchestra with a DJ, in this case “Skratch Bastid”. Mediating were the four members of the Afiara string quartet, including Fung, viola Eric Wong and violinists Valerie Li and Timothy Kantor. There were two contrasting movements, namely the opening “Surface tension” and “Fusion dreams”. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a two-movement work of diametrically opposite movements, for instance Beethoven’s piano sonata op 111 resembles it, in the fury of the opening movement and the serenity of its closing.

“Surface tension” sees materials emerging in the quartet that are then picked up either by the DJ or the orchestra. If there is a conflict, it’s enacted not in classical counterpoint or pure juxtaposition, but in passages resembling an actual battle (as the sonorities reminded me of the fight in West Side Story). Lau is a real crowd-pleaser, his music always listenable and often stunningly beautiful, whether in his writing for the quartet or the orchestra. I can understand how this conflict emerges, given that an improviser such as the DJ is fundamentally alien to the notion of a work scored and determined on the page. When we came to “Fusion Dreams” we begin with a pretty little tune from the quartet picked up in the orchestra, and then riffed by the DJ without fracturing the rapport. We build to a kind of diapason, a sonic climax employing everyone… that hangs before us like the dream of a fusion of the players & styles, the hoped for reconciliation of opposites. And we are then pulled back into the quartet for a few miniature paraphrases of what came before, as though remembering the dream, and still daring to hope. The ending was like a question mark reminding me of the way Richard Strauss ends Also Sprach Zarathustra, poignant with possibilities.

For such a young composer I’m in awe, and eager to hear what comes next from Kevin Lau. Ah yes, he’s been commissioned by the National Ballet, so next is this June.

The New Creations Festival continues Wednesday March 9th with Brett Dean’s Trumpet Concerto Dramatis Personae, James Ledger’s Two Memorials, plus a live film From the Vortex PerspectiveI by Paul Frehner and Peter Mettler.

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