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Penderecki then and now

Koerner Hall
01/29/2010 -  
Krzysztof Penderecki: Threnody (to the Victims of Hiroshima) – Concerto Grosso for Three Cellos and Orchestra
John Adams: aria from Dr. Atomic
R. Murray Schafer: The Falcon’s Trumpet

Peter Barrett (Baritone), Ambur Braid (Soprano), Stuart Laughton (Trumpet), Simon Fryer, Roman Borys, Paul Widner (Cello)
The Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk (Conductor)

K. Penderecki(Courtesy of Esprit Orchestra)

Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki has been the subject of special series of concerts and lectures during the final frigid week of January, and this concert by the Esprit Orchestra (title: Penderecki Plus!) turned out to be quite the gala occasion.

The Esprit Orchestra was established by conductor/composer Alex Pauk back in 1983 to play 20th (and now 21st) century music, with an emphasis on new works. The orchestra has a core of some 50 players, although this concert, in a venue more than twice the size of Esprit’s usual hall, employed more than 80.

The venue: Koerner Hall is a sparkling 21st century concert hall attached to the 19th century building housing Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM). It opened in September, 2009, and so far has proven to be a great success in presentations of a wide range of musical genres. It seats about 1100 on three levels.

(For the record, its architect was Marianne McKenna of Toronto’s KPMB Architects, and its acoustician was Robert Essert, the man responsible for the successful Four Seasons Centre, home of the Canadian Opera and National Ballet Companies.)

The program opened with one of the “Plus” elements of the program: the aria “Batter my heart, three person’d God” from Dr. Atomic by John Adams was sung by Peter Barrett. My seat was directly above the platform and to the side, a location that was fine for everything except a solo singer aiming his voice toward the main space of the hall. The result for me was the indirect sound of a spacious cathedral - I can’t assess the singer’s performance. The orchestral outbursts that punctuate the aria were very sharply delivered.

The Adams work, which tells of the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II, was obviously chosen for its thematic connection with the program’s second work, Penderecki’s famous Threnody (To the Victims of Hiroshima), composed in 1959. It calls for 52 string players and that is precisely what was provided. My location gave me a good view of the score, which largely consists of long ribbons of sound, with no bar lines or individual notes indicated. There is a brief section with metronomic time values, but for the most part the conductor is more a traffic director signalling the start and finish of sections. I remember it being one of the sensations of the sixties, with the instruments played in their highest possible registers (and beyond) – and even saw Penderecki conduct it back then. Pauk led a committed performance and the capacity audience (representing an eclectic mix of ages and styles) cheered the players and the composer.

It is unusual to write a critique of an intermission feature, but here goes anyway: in conjunction with the theme of the Adams and Penderecki pieces, an art installation was opened in the lobby. Joanne Tod has created Oh Canada - a Lament, consisting of portraits (painted by her) of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. This opening was accompanied by the Esprit Orchestra’s official Highland Piper (who knew?), David Waterhouse, in full Scottish regalia. The works he played were most definitely pre-twentieth century. Having the art in this location is a fine idea; it certainly helps fulfil the RCM’s aspiration for the building to become a palazzo pubblico, a place where people will want to freely gather for a whole host of reasons. However, holding a serious quasi-Remembrance Day ceremony in the busy lobby of a packed concert hall simply does not work.

The third piece on the program was yet another “Plus”: R. Murray Schafer’s The Falcon’s Trumpet. Schafer is featured in Esprit’s programs this season. He was born the same year as Penderecki (1933), and is known for his many works designed to be performed outdoors or in other non-traditional locations. This work was commissioned by Esprit and first performed in 1996. Schafer’s outdoor works typically place performers in dispersed locations, singly or in groups, and The Falcon’s Trumpet requires its 42 players to be divided into six groups: one on stage, two back stage, and three placed in the auditorium. “Non-synchronous interaction” is expected – and was achieved, although I have certainly attended performances a lot less synchronous than this. Stuart Laughton used two separately-tuned trumpets. A haunting vocalise that appears near the end of the piece was ably sung by Ambur Braid. The engaging piece (it has echoes of Ives’s Unanswered Question) lasts about half an hour.

The evening ended with a Penderecki piece dating from 2001. The composer famously (or notoriously?) stopped being avant-garde (whatever that means anymore) not long after achieving his international renown, mirroring a tendency adopted by many composers in the last fifty years. The Concerto Grosso for Three Cellos and Orchestra has six linked movements and lasts about 35 minutes. Simon Fryer, a former member of Wilfred Laurier University’s Penderecki String Quartet, gave a strong launch to the piece. The warm rich tones of the cellos are fully exploited, giving some moments an Elgarian sound. The piece contains periods of traditional tonality that get tugged or nudged into various atonal realms. Just as for the 51-year-old earlier work, the rapt audience received this piece with great enthusiasm.

This has been a season featuring visits to Toronto by an array of composers and performances of their work. In the fall, when Philip Glass had a new violin concerto premiered by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, he was given a rock star’s welcome by the suppposedly staid symphony audience. Later in February Osvaldo Golijov will be here when his works will be featured in three concerts. Judging from the reaction to this concert, Krzysztof Penderecki’s sojourn has been a highly successful one.

In addition, the success of the Esprit Orchestra at Koerner Hall calls for a return visit to this wonderful venue, perhaps even a relocation of its series.

Michael Johnson



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