Udo Kasemets: 1919 – 2014

Some sad news from the world of new music.

Estonian-Canadian composer Udo Kasemets passed away yesterday at the age of 94. Kasemets, whose work has been played by all over Canada and Estonia, was a quiet, yet immensly influential figure in the world of sonic art – particularly, his work influencing young artists from the Ontario College of Art and Design.

He will be missed.


– Paolo Griffin

Review: NMC and Motion Ensemble Get It Right

New Brunswick-based Motion Ensemble. From left to right: Nadia Francavilla, D'arcy P. Gray, Andrew Miller, Karin Aurell, Richard Hornsby, and Helen Pridmore

New Brunswick-based Motion Ensemble. From left to right: Nadia Francavilla, D’arcy P. Gray, Andrew Miller, Karin Aurell, Richard Hornsby, and Helen Pridmore

I’m always in a good mood the day after a great concert – something intangible carries over to the next box on the calendar. And the performance by New Music Concert last night was one of those shows. Taking place in the Music Gallery, a cozy venue a stone’ throw from the Art Gallery of Ontario, NMC’s show featured music by east coast Canadian composers played by New Brunswick-based Motion Ensemble and guest bassist Roberto Occhipinti.

The concert, titled From Atlantic Shores, featured the works of well established east coast Canadian composers (with one exception, but I’ll get to that).

Jérôme Blais’ piece Le Miroir d’Argent (2012) kicked off the night with a melody drawn from an old east coast folk song. Composers have, for centuries, been inserting folk themes and ideas into their music with varying degrees of success, but I can say, with utmost conviction, the Blais’ piece was one of those successes. The jaunty melody was carried along by the vocalist (Helen Pridmore), and versions of the melody that were less ornamented were carried along by the other instruments. There were almost certainly sections of the piece that were inspired by Steve Reich, and it was nice to see that the enjoyment that the musicians were drawing from the piece carried over to the audience; I saw more than a few heads bobbing along.

Paul Steffler’s Book of Manners (2009) was a smoother little piece, with some nice textures and colours coming from the combination of violin and vibraphone. It was a little dry though, and while I liked the first two movements well enough, it was really the third movement –  Benevolence and Peace with Many – that caught my attention.

Kevin Morse’s The Unnamed Lake (2013) combined a vocal part reminiscent of Danish composer Per Norgard (a favourite of mine), with instrumental writing that reminded me of a less crystalline George Crumb. It was really quite lovely.

Newcomer Lucas Oikle, who has just started his M.Mus in Composition at UBC, had the only premiere on the concert: Skyglow. The piece, a Japanese-inspired piece based on the idea of light pollution emanating from urban centres. The piece had the potential to be better than it was. My biggest complaint was that it was too stuffed with ideas. New material was constantly appearing when there hadn’t even been the chance to absorb what had come before, and I ended up feeling very unsatisfied with what I’d heard.

Derek Chark and Sandy Moore’s piece for voice and clarinet titled Blizzard; Between the Ships and the Shores (2009) and Tout Passe (2009) were an example of perfect programming on the part of Motion. Both pieces were beautiful, and were, by themselves worth coming to the concert. The transition between works was so smooth, and that they fit so well together stylistically, that it really felt like they were movements of the same piece. That is how concerts should be programmed.

Anthony Genge’s Motion (2005) was a delightful work that was a combination of things. Fun, catchy, quick, and just the right length meant that this piece, for me, was a highlight of the night.

Without a doubt though, the most interesting piece of the night was  WL Altman’s Variations on a Theme by McCartney (2009). Grating at times, beautiful at others, and definitely catchy (it’s a theme by McCartney, so what else would you expect?), this is one of those pieces that we, in the new music community, have to throw out there to the general public, because people will respond.

If I may be allowed a short digression: I would honestly like nothing more than to see this programme put on again in Toronto (or anywhere else in Canada) and aimed more at members of the general public outside the sometimes cloistered sphere of new and classical music lovers. Attract them with Variations, keep them here with Le Miroir and Motion. Have them listen to what great song writing sounds like with Blizzard and Tout Passe. I am convinced that this concert has everything needed to draw in people from outside our community.

With so many concerts happening throughout the year, it’s easy to get disheartened about the state of new music, but certainly Motion Ensemble’s choice of programming lived up to its province’s motto: Spem reduxit or Hope Was Restored.

– Paolo Griffin

Preview: Week of January 20th

There’s only one concert to happening in Toronto this week. However next week it gets busy. Next week, the University of Toronto New Music Festival gets underway with a week and a half worth of events. Concerts, lectures, shows, discussions, and more concerts will be available for free viewing. The composer in residence at the university this year is English composer Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of Sergei, and a very talented DJ and composer in his own right. I’ll be covering the week’s events, so you can expect quite a few written pieces.

Now, onto business.

Wednesday January 22nd

7:30 PM: Ryan Scott, percussionist for Continuum, Esprit, and the Canadian Opera Company puts on a recital at University of Toronto’s Walter Hall. On the program are works from Japan and Canada, including a new piece by Andrew Staniland.

Thursday January 23rd

7:30 PM: Toronto pianist, composer, and New Music Toronto contributor Adam Sherkin will be joining forces with soprano Carla Huhtanen to “celebrate the musicality of Winter in a recital of songs from Canada and Scandinavia”. On tap are pieces by Canadians Omar Daniel, Ana Sokolovic, and Jeffrey Ryan, as well as Finnish legend Jean Sibelius, and Swedish powerhouse Ture Rangström. I have a great amount of affect for the music coming out of Scandanavia, and so I’m quite excited for this concert. Come have a listen.

Until Friday.

– Paolo Griffin

New Sounds for 2014

Last night’s concert at the Music Gallery, featuring Montreal-based Ensemble Paramirabo, as well as quite a few others, was definitely one of the most interesting concerts I have been to in a long time.

It started with Canadian sound artist and composer Christopher Willes, who has had exhibitions in Finland, New York City, and Toronto, to name a few. The only piece on the first half of the concert was Willes’ immersive Blow/Draw. The performers, and there were many of them, positions themselves around the hall and began to play long sustained tones. I’m told the direction of the piece resulted from following the harmonic series, but I wish I could’ve had a chance to talk to the composer about this piece. It seemed everyone had a different reaction to the piece, given that it was those long notes for almost 45 minutes. I’m not the first to admit that my mind wandered off for a while in the middle of the piece, but, then, maybe that was the point. Different colours, textures, and effect kept appearing, and the overall impression I got was that of the world’s most colourful slinky.

After an intermission, Ensemble Paramirabo stepped up to performer Willes’ Receding Background. A work made of seven miniatures featuring the instruments and electronic sounds via speaker. Most were good, some were fantastic. There was a constant shift in mood between playful, serious, exciting, and back again.

Canadian Scott Rubin’s interestingly titled work the Torn Cubist felt like a piece that progressed from abstraction into something more or less solid. In the later parts of the piece especially, when the music adopted a driving rock and jazz derived set of rhythms, did I feel like this was a piece that I would like to hear again.

Composers Robert Hansler and Rodrigo Bussad had brand new offerings. In the former’s case, a work titled In Every Place, Incense and in the latter’s, Loin.

In Every Place, Incense felt like a piece whose name really fit. It was a great combination of fragility and strength. The musicians seemed to really be in their depth during this piece, and it came out in the music.

Loin was another interesting piece. Perhaps not my favourite sort of work, but it had its definite moments. Roaring at a rapid pace through sections, with dark textures and a fantastic use of the instruments and their less conventional techniques, I would very much like to hear this piece again, as I don’t feel ready to give a complete opinion on it with just one listening.

There were also two Frank Zappa arrangements,  I’m the Slime and Fifty-Fifty,  on the program (arranged very well by Symon Henry). I’m not convinced that they were completely necessary for the concert, and they did stand out a little bit, but I enjoyed them nonetheless, and so did the audience and the performers.

This was my first concert of 2014, and casting aside the fact that I’m pleased to finally get back into things, the concert was enjoyable and a success. A full house with an enthusiastic audience and great performers is great to see, and it’s always nice to see familiar faces.

A final note. A word of advice to the man and woman who were lying spread eagle in the aisle during the concert: Don’t. It’s incredibly unbecoming, makes the audience look bad, and makes you look even worse.

Have a good weekend.

– Paolo Griffin

Preview: Weekend of January 17th

Finally, the concert scene is picking up some. This weekend is just the tip of the iceberg, as there are a whole batch of new music concerts coming your way in the next two months. Here’s what’s on this weekend.

Friday January 17th

8:00 PM: The Music Gallery presents their second concert in their Emergents series. This concert, curated by Toronto composer and bassist Adam Scime, and featuring Montreal-based Ensemble Paramirabo features a whole swath of brand new, never before heard works by Brazilian born Rodrigo Bussad, and Canadians, Scott Rubin, Robert Hansler, and Christopher Willes. Also on tap are arrangements of two pieces by Frank Zappa, who, as we all know, rocks. Don’t miss this concert, it’s a rare chance to hear a concert made almost entirely of premieres.

Sunday January 19th

8:00 PM: New Music Concerts kicks of 2014 with a collaboration concert featuring  east coast Motion Ensemble.  Together, the New Music Concerts ensemble, and Motion, will perform eight pieces of music written by eight Canadian composers all within the past 10 years. Derek Charke, Jérôme Blais, Sandy Moore, just to name a few. I’m already looking forward to this.


So, there you have it. Two concerts this weekend, with plenty of time to reflect. I’ll see you on the field.


– Paolo Griffin


Preview: Week of January 13th

Once again, not much happening in the city this week as the new music machine slowly gets itself warmed up. Look forward to plenty of great music this weekend and next week, but for now, we have this:

Monday January 13th

5:30 PM: Composer and pianist Chris Donnelly presents a concert of his own work Metamorphosis. Donnelly, a Juno-nominated performer, has experience in the jazz and classical worlds and from what I’ve heard, seems to be at home in the world of improvisation. Get out to the Canadian Music Centre (20 St. Joseph St. Toronto) on Monday and find out.


Until Thursday,

– Paolo Griffin