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Splendid soloists featured

Roy Thomson Hall
03/08/2017 -  
Harry Stafylakis: Shadows Radiant: Sesquie for Canada’s 150th
Aaron Jay Kernis: Violin Concerto (World Premiere)
Owen Pallett: Songs from an Island (*)
Nico Muhly: Mixed Messages (*)

Daniel Okulitch (bass-baritone), James Ehnes (violin)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian, André de Ridder (*) (conductors)

D. Okulitch (© Arkan Zakharov)

The TSO’s New Creations Festival kicked off its second concert with another two-minute sesquie, this one Shadows Radiant by Montreal-born Harry Stafylakis. The title refers to the need to shine a light on less brilliant aspects of Canadian (or any) history, the “proverbial skeletons in the closet”. The work contains a struggle, as if the composer wants to make a positive statement but can’t quite get there.

Next up was a world premiere by US composer Aaron Jay Kernis called simply Violin Concerto, the composer’s second collaboration with James Ehnes. (The first, Two Movements (with Bells), is reviewed here). It follows the concerto tradition with three distinct movements (“Chaconne”, “Ballad”, “Toccatini”), the first one announcing itself very boldly and proceeding into a lengthy development. There is a good deal of anguish in the orchestral writing and an agitated section for the soloist (with some good old-fashioned pizzicato) that provides relief from quite an orchestral onslaught.

The second movement contains passages related to the sound world of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, as does the “Toccatini”, which contains a self-described “Kernis-ian mash-up” and features an amusing syncopated section for piano and tuba.

It is all quite a work-out for the violinist and - no surprise - James Ehnes seems well up to the mark. The piece was co-commissioned with the orchestras of Seattle, Dallas and Melbourne. It deserves to be widely heard.

This was followed by another world premiere with an equally stellar soloist: Owen Pallett’s Songs from an Island, with bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch who used his rich voice to maximum effect, giving full expressiveness to each word and pause. The vocal part makes no extreme demands on the singer, thus giving room for the notable thoughtfulness of delivery.

Pallett’s text is in three parts written like paragraphs that contain rhyme without metre. The words are a non-stop sequence of non-sequiturs, as in the opening line: “Every time I sing, you say I am gaslighting”. A word like “Thermidor” seems to be there just in order to rhyme with “kitchen floor”. The first two sections seem to refer to a dire childhood. The third section (“Oh, I dream of starships”) brightens up in Whitmanesque style. It ostensibly tells of an ex-farmer who winds up in a port town.

The opening music reminded me a bit of George Butterworth; later on there are folk-ballad cadences (a Gordon Lightfoot influence perhaps?) The snare-drum has a lengthy, insistent passage the end of which comes as a relief.

The work as is contains the first three of eventually 12 sections. Despite all the effort that has gone into it, the composer confusingly describes it as a “no-content piece”. I can’t tell if its verbal ambiguities are merely obscurantist. The full opus, which would take an hour to perform, would certainly need a singer with Daniel Okulitch’s level of skill to convey.

The final work was Nico Muhly’s Mixed Messages, a piece commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2015 that has since been toured in New York and Europe. It opens with a lot of nervous energy before venturing into transformations during which the piece comes across as a romp. The piano is given a theme that gets tiresomely repetitive just prior to its abrupt finish. Eleven minutes in length, it was initially performed as a curtain-riser. It’s a genial piece, but coming at the end of this program it was a bit of an anti-climax.

Michael Johnson



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