Review: Esprit Visits Bali

Sunday night’s Esprit concert had its ups and downs, but thankfully, there was more good than bad about it. The concert theme was a tribute to gamelan, a traditional music ensemble from the Indonesian islands. Esprit conductor Alex Pauk presented a work of his that had been re-tooled for orchestra Echo Spirit Isle (1983), as well as works by Canadian composers Chan Ka Nin, Andre Ristic, Claude Vivier, and Spanish composer Jose Evangelista.

Despite the impressive line up, I found more than a few of the works on the programme wanting. The highlight of the night, surprisingly, was presented by traditional Balinese dancer Putu Evie Suyadnyani, who performed a complex and entrancing dance accompanied by a recording of the music. Wearing a traditional dancers outfit, the dance consisted of hundreds of subtle movements that made up a larger picture. Think of a painter, whose individual brushstrokes may not look like much, but when you step back, you can see the whole picture as it’s intended.

Echo Spirit Isle suffered from the same problem as Chan Ka Nin’s Eveil aux oiseaux (2005) and Vivier’s Pulau Dewata (1977), which is that they dragged a bit in the middle. I actually liked Ka Nin’s piece most of all the pieces on this concert, but it still had some small issues. Pulau Dewata, originally intended for any combination of instruments that can fit the scoring, was arranged by composer Scott Good for this concert, and I must say, he did an impressive job. Using an orchestra to its full potential is a difficult thing for many composers, but Good managed to do that, with bright and interesting sounds, as well new textures and colours that kept everyone’s attention fixed on the stage.

The title piece of the night, Jose Evangelista’s O Gamelan (2013) was a pleasant piece that made some interesting (and ultimately positive) choices in its use of the orchestra, however I found that there wasn’t too much going on below the surface. I still enjoyed it, so there’s that I suppose.

American composer Lou Harrison’s Threnody for Carlos Chavez (1978), was a piece that I’d have to listen again in order to really come up with an opinion. I can say though, that the melodies that Harrison produced were quite lovely, and the often static background gamelan (provided by the Evergreen Contemporary Gamelan from Toronto) against the moving viola was a pleasure to listen to. It also wasn’t too long (a problem with many new works). So yes, I think I’d have to give it another listen before I cast my stone in one direction or the other.

Overall, I enjoyed the concert. The Esprit musicians played the programme with their usual expert touch, and Esprit certainly reminded us again why it is a leader in the world of Canadian new music.

Also, if you get the chance, do look up some Balinese dance on the internet. It really was spectacular.

– Paolo Griffin.

Review: Esprit Celebrates the Beginning of a New Year

Last night’s Esprit Orchestra season launch was a success, and it was also a concert of the kind of music you’d expect from Esprit. Eccentric and entertaining. The launch concert featured four pieces. No Longer Than 10 Minutes (1970) by Canadian R. Murray Schafer, Zipangu (1980) by Claude Vivier, and the tremendous orchestra studies of Samy Moussa titled Gegenschein and Zodiakallicht (2009). Headlining the concert was principal viola of the TSO Teng Li, playing the solo part of Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s tremendous Viola Concerto (1985).

It was a good move on the part of Alex Pauk to programme the Schafer to begin the concert. It seems to be especially important in new music concerts to grab the attention of the listener from the outset, and No Longer… was just the piece to do that. An amusing romp through Schafer’s typical territory of temporal and acoustic subjects, this piece was based largely on sound graphs Schafer had taken of downtown Vancouver. The musicians were instructed to enter, begin tuning, and proceed straight to the performance. Alex Pauk wandered on some time later, and, as if in an episode of Mr. Bean, decided that the best course of action would be to conduct the orchestra. Schafer’s orchestration is always enjoyable to observe, and his use of percussion instruments is really quite astonishing. I hear something different every time I listen to a piece of his.

Esprit Founder & Conductor Alex Pauk

Esprit Founder & Conductor Alex Pauk

The Schafer transitioned straight away into Zipangu. When I say straight away, I mean it. There was no customary pause between piece. The musicians of the orchestra who weren’t needed left the stage while the ones who were stayed on and played. Pauk came back out and they launched right into it. The only problem I had with this was that I had to pause for a very short second to figure out when we had started one piece and finished the other (a reaction that was shared by others).

Zipangu  was the name given to Japan at the time of Marco Polo, and, in Vivier’s words: “Within the frame of a single melody I explore in this work different aspects of color. I tried to “blur” my harmonic structure through different bowing techniques.” Indeed this exploration of different aspects of a string instrument was the main theme of the piece. Extremely lyrical, this work combined the Vivier’s typical style of string writing, with an overall goal of exploring texture. I’ve never been a huge Vivier fan, with only a few of his pieces ever impressing me enough to give them repeat listening,  and this piece was no different. I simply feel that it dragged on a bit too long, perhaps sagging a little in the middle. However, i by no means disliked it. It was an entertaining piece, and very much complimented the rest of the programme.

Canadian born, German based Samy Moussa’s two orchestral studies were possibly two of the most impressive examples of orchestra I’ve heard in a while. Very short (the run time for both the pieces combined was under ten minutes); these works explored the orchestra’s ability to produce new and exciting sounds. A focus on playing with timbre was clear, and I felt as if Moussa had simply taken a large paintbrush to a surface, and instead of painting shapes, had quickly brushed out one long stroke. Moussa studied for a time with Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, a favourite of mine, and you can hear the influence here. Lindberg’s impressive orchestration skills have clearly been passed on in some form.

I won’t spend too much time on Schnittke’s Viola Concerto, since it is a piece that has been so ingrained in the repertoire of 20th century music that reviewing it would be fairly pointless. I can only say that the orchestra played splendidly, and Teng Li showed once again why she is constantly appearing as a soloist in addition to her duties as principal viola of the TSO. Her performance was captivating, particularly the last movement, which was a slow, desolate journey through a bleak landscape.

Soloist & TSO Principal Viola Teng Li

Teng Li: Soloist & TSO Principal Viola

In the years that I have attended Esprit concerts, there are occasionally oddly programmed concerts, or concerts where the orchestra failed to shine, however this was not one of those nights. The orchestra was in top form, as was Teng Li, and the programme was well thought out. Here’s to a new season.

– Paolo Griffin

Online!

The site is online!

Welcome to New Music Toronto, a new website/blog that aims to keep people informed about concerts, shows, and anything else related to the contemporary classical music scene in Toronto.

As the site progresses, I will add more content, including reviews, concert dates, composer/musician spotlights, and anything else that catches my fancy.

For now, I will provide a quick overview of the blog: On the right is the twitter feed from my twitter account @NewMusicToronto. On the left is a calender with a display of events happening every month. This calender is constantly changing, so keep checking for new events. Finally, if you want to get in contact with me, follow the ‘About’ link to find a quick overview of what I do here as well as my contact information.

The first review will be up next week and I hope you will keep yourself up to speed on events in Toronto using this blog.

If you have topic suggestions, concert dates we missed, general suggestions, or anything else you want to speak to me about, don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail at newmusictoronto@gmail.com

-Paolo Griffin