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Atmospheric conjuring

Koerner Hall
10/16/2014 -  
Thomas Adès: Polaris
Charles Ives: Central Park in the Dark
Paul Frehner: Phantom Suns
Chris Paul Harman: Coyote Soul

Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk (conductor)

A. Pauk (© Bo Huang)

Kicking off the Esprit Orchestra’s 32nd season in fine style was Thomas Adès’ Polaris, subtitle “Voyage for Orchestra”. And what a voyage it is! For full orchestra, it begins with rippling piano cadences gradually joined by other instruments building to what almost seems like a slow-mo deconstruction of the introduction to Also sprach Zarathustra. Groups of brass instruments stationed in various parts of the concert hall join in. What emerges is the sonic equivalent of huge colour field abstract paintings with great swaths of dark tones. It lightens up for a bit before the sonic onslaught redoubles. The final note is a lengthy, high-tension tone, marvelously held by conductor and players.

The 15-minute work was commissioned by the New World Symphony for the 2011 opening of their new concert hall in Miami Beach. It must have been quite an event. Six other orchestras co-commissioned the piece so it has been widely performed - and deservedly so.

This was followed by a piece composed way back in 1906, although it didn’t have its first performance until 1946: Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark. Here is an example of Ives layering various tunes. The idea was to summon up memories of a quiet evening in the park in the era before “the combustion engine and the radio monopolized the earth and air”. It uses an orchestra of 25 or so players, mostly strings. It begins softly with gently floating lines and seems to drift for awhile, conjuring up the ambient sounds a casual stroller might hear. But then popular music of the day intrudes - identifiable are “Hello! Ma Baby”, a ragtime hit from 1899, and a march by John Philip Sousa. After a brassy climax the somnolent strings return. The piece was certainly cutting edge in 1906 and even 1946 - and arguably still is.

In many ways Chris Paul Harmon’s Coyote Soul is a companion piece to the Ives work in that it layers in a whimsically out-of-tune version of a popular song, namely Burt Bacharach’s “Close to You”. The piece was premiered by Esprit in 2011 (and reviewed here). It is an engaging work with lots of sparkle - as in the use of two harps tuned a quarter-tone apart - and well worth performing again.

The program featured another Esprit commission being given a second airing by the orchestra, Paul Frehner’s Phantom Suns, from 2012. It is in two movements, “Luminescence” and “Cipher”. The first part is inspired by atmospheric effects such as when the sun is low on the horizon and shines through vaporous clouds. At first the music is reminiscent of Maurice Jarre’s for Lawrence of Arabia, then we get some cosmic swoops of sound. The music plods a bit, then goes ethereal. The second movement (according to the composer’s notes) attempts to deal with both folkish, pre-scientific reactions to atmospheric phenomena, while also paying tribute to those who deciphered the Nazi’s Enigma code. I don’t know whether abstract, wordless music can actually do all this, but here is an example of a composer’s notes being as perplexing as his music. However, as in Adès’ Polaris, the work sends out blazing swaths of sound conjuring up blazing streams of light.

Earlier this year Alex Pauk was awarded the Order of Canada. As the founder of Esprit, an orchestra dedicated to performing 20th and now also 21st century works, he has been slogging it out in the trenches of contemporary music his entire career. His accomplishments deserve such a tribute.

Michael Johnson



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