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