Pallett – Ehnes TSO #NCF17

Tonight’s New Creations Festival Concert by the Toronto Symphony gave us a closer look at the co-curator Owen Pallett, who stepped into the spotlight with a premiere of his own, alongside two other world premieres and a recent composition from south of the border.  We sampled three substantial works of diverse flavours, after another Sesquie.

The more I encounter these short pieces –commissions designed as two minute celebrations of our Sesquicentennial, and therefore called “Sesquies” – the more I see in them.  Restrictions can be an incentive to creativity, as I’m finding in every one of these lovely little works.  Harry Stafylakis called his offering “Shadows Radiant: Sesquie for Canada’s 150th” and I’d have to say that it’s the most celebratory one I’ve heard so far.  While we did hear a trace of Oh Canada, the main thing was to let loose joyfully.  Nevermind misgivings we may have at this point in time, carpe diem on July 1st 2017.

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Composer Aaron Jay Kernis

Then, as promised yesterday, it was time to hear what James Ehnes could do, in a new violin concerto written just for him.  And while I had an eye-opening experience last night hearing Ehnes’s Bach solos –both up close and personal in the intimacy of the RBA, and as I binge listened on youtube—it’s as though composer Aaron Jay Kernis wanted to build on that, knowing the violinist’s strengths.  In the first and last movements we heard wonderful solos. In the first movement there was more than a hint of the baroque even if the orchestra burst forth with a post-romantic barrage, at times overwhelming the subtleties of Ehnes’s violin.

Kernis fills me with optimism, hearing a piece that sounds so fresh, full of new sounds & ideas.  At times there was a kind of irony to the self-reflexive texture in the orchestra, chopping up phrases in response to short phrases from the soloist. The orchestral sound could be big and dissonant, or softly reflective, mellow but still very new sounding in its invocation of quasi-jazzy sonorities.  The moods were varied, and chosen with a solid sense of authority, in the clear delineation of movements that were at least following a familiar template, right up to the rhythmically vigorous closing movement. And then a few minutes before the end, I watched Ehnes play a cadenza, creating sounds I’ve never heard from a violin before, as much a treat to hear, as to watch Peter Oundjian smiling like a cherub at this amazing performance right in front of him (lucky guy). I have to think that Kernis set out to challenge Ehnes: who more than met the challenge in the amazing passage at the end.  I must hear it again!

After the interval came more distinctive voices. First came heard Owen Pallett’s song cycle Songs From An Island, featuring bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch.

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New Creations Festival Curator Owen Pallett (photo: Brian Vu)

After the overpowering intensity of the concerto, Pallett’s songs made a welcome contrast: but of course he knew that when he assembled the program.  Pallett’s texts are a surreal triptych on the edge of dystopian horror, litanies of delicately phrased nightmares underplayed in Pallett’s setting and delicately voiced by Okulitch’s mellifluous reading of the songs, like the gentle radio host inside your head.  I’d be tempted to call them minimalist, perhaps thinking of the way Philip Glass tippy-toed on the boundary dividing art song from pop song in his “Songs From Liquid Days” back in the 80s, but Pallett’s texts are much wilder, his settings closer to pop music than art-song from where I sat. This was a very accessible music, housing explosive imagery in the text, not unlike the way a bottle of nitroglycerine is packed in soft fabric.  Argh again I feel I must hear this again. There’s a great deal to unpack in those songs, which don’t reveal themselves readily in one listening (or so I felt).

And to close, the piece that made me smile throughout, Nick Muhly’s extraordinary Mixed Messages.  The program notes led me to believe that the piece was concerned about communication: and so it was.  I felt I was hearing a sonic picture of a brain, synapses firing, then mis-firing, an aural model of discourse, complete with the pulsing electricity of our nerves and the occasional pause before renewing the flow.  This too was a highly accomplished piece of such perfection I didn’t want it to end, yet felt totally contented when it did finally stop.

Pallett gave us four delightfully contrasting pieces, all wonderfully executed. The first two were conducted by Oundjian, the latter two boldly led by André de Ridder.  The TSO sounded fantastic throughout, particularly the brass, who were given a fair workout in the second half of the program.

Although today might be International Women’s Day, the TSO will celebrate it Saturday night, when three of the four compositions programmed by Pallett will be by women composers.  I can’t wait.

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