The Toronto Symphony’s 2017 New Creations Festival aka #NCF17 co-curated by Owen Pallett and Peter Oundjian began tonight.
And I couldn’t help feeling, this is what it should feel like when I go to the symphony. Usually? The place is full of baby boomers like myself (although I think that’s normal for any of the serious performance experiences such as theatre, opera or symphonic music, some even more extreme in their demographic). But tonight my wife and I were by far the oldest in our section, surrounded by 20- and 30-somethings.
The girl to my left –and I say “girl” without meaning to demean her, as I’m speaking of a female younger than my own daughter—was crying at the end. The prevailing language in the applause was hoots and woots rather than bravo and brava. And the place was surprisingly full considering how cold it is tonight.
I think most of that youthful cohort were there for the final piece on the program, an ambitious collaborative creation featuring Tanya Tagaq.
At one point I almost said “pinch me”. There we were at a concert featuring four pieces, three actual world premieres, plus the fourth was a TSO co-commission, getting its Toronto premiere. Heady stuff indeed:
- Reflection on “O Canada” After Truth and Reconciliation: Sesquie for Canada’s 150th by Andrew Staniland
(world premiere/TSO co-commission)
- Trauermarsch by Jörg Widmann for Piano and Orchestra
(Canadian premiere /TSO co-commission)
- Iris by Jordan Pal
(World premiere /TSO Commission)
- Qiksaaktuq by Tanya Tagaq, Christine Duncan, Jean Martin / Orchestrated by Christopher Mayo
(World premiere /TSO Commission)
It felt genuinely festive, a buzz in the air.
The first and last items on the program attempt to address profound injustices, while the second is a sort of funeral march. Pal’s Iris was a welcome change of pace in a provocative program from Pallett & Oundjian. I look forward to the next two concerts in the series featuring James Ehnes, Kronos Quartet and the music of Nicole Lizée as well as that of Pallett himself.
Staniland’s Sesquie is an ambitious two minute work. The sesquies are a series of co-commissions whereby orchestras all over the country are celebrating our sesquicentennial: in two-minute fanfares. At first glance I wondered if the subject was too much for two minutes, but no. Staniland does something of great simplicity and directness in taking Oh Canada and reframing it as a tune in minor, complete with the pompous sonorities of a fanfare to conclude. No you can’t really talk about Truth and Reconciliation in two minutes, and yet one can at least call attention to the incompleteness of our national dream.
Trauermarsch was for me the most thoroughly realized idea of the evening. I searched just now for an allusion to Gustav Mahler that must have been made in Peter Oundjian’s introductory remarks, given that I can’t find it in the printed program. The title is the German word for Funeral March, that I can’t help thinking was transformed by Widmann, the composer, in many of the same ways that Mahler transformed the scherzo in his own symphonies: making a simple form into something almost unrecognizable and much more profound as a result. The opening theme in the piano coalesces into a two-note motif that reminds me of the main theme of the opening movement of Mahler’s Ninth, except this one stays in minor throughout (whereas that one goes from major to minor): that is if it’s accurate to shoe-horn this music into that relatively conservative pigeonhole. The suggestions of a minor key are sometimes strong, but there’s a lot more to the piece than that, including a piano part at times very lyrical and even tuneful, at other times verging on the percussive keyboard playing found in the concerti of Bartok or Khatchaturian. I mention them also because while we were sometimes in ambiguous territory as far as tonalities were concerned, I don’t think we ever fully lost the tonal dimension in this wonderfully soulful piece. And with pianist Yefim Bronfman, for whom the piece was written, there’s an ethnic dimension I couldn’t help feeling (particularly with his performance alongside Tagaq, and a pair of pieces alluding to the Indigenous Holocaust) as though Bronfman’s soulful playing were channeling Widmann’s central European angst through his fingers. At times the music was stunningly beautiful.
After the interval Jordan Pal offered something in a different colour –literally—in his bright explorations of timbres titled Iris, a work that seems thinly conceived in comparison to the apparent depths of the other three pieces, but still offered a terrific bit of contrast to the weight in the other pieces, cleansing our aural pallettes (and forgive me if that pun is unforgivable).
The five movement closing collaboration, is one I want to describe with care, given that it’s a collective creation, incorporating improvisation by orchestra players led by Christine Duncan as well as the impromptu vocal heroics of Tagaq. And the subject is grief, the unutterable pain and loss of the missing and murdered aboriginal women. Here we ventured into the territory of the inexpressible, a daring exploration that felt genuinely risky to the life of the performer at the centre of the stage. It feels apt that attempting to express such pain should suggest a painful difficult process of expression, leaving me wondering (not for the first time), if Tagaq’s singing is painful. She was and is unafraid of making sounds that are like an exploration of every feeling, traversing the boundaries between lyrical beauty and visceral agony and back again. I was taken back to my early operatic experiences before surtitles, where one didn’t know nor necessarily care about precise meanings of the words being sung: because one could still have a powerful emotional response to the body language, the tones, the music and the story being told. The subject in this case is grief, explored via the stages enumerated by Kübler-Ross. I found that I was a bit lost in the abstraction of it all, not quite sure what was meant to be said (at least speaking as one who came with the intention of writing about the experience): yet carried away by the power of the voice and the music all the same. I’m not sure one needs to know, so long as one is feeling and responding. And indeed the experience of Tagaq in her TSO debut–so many sounds, such a stunning and vulnerable performance– was overwhelming.
The TSO’s #NCF17 continues Wednesday night at Roy Thomson Hall and concludes next Saturday.