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Music and pictures dazzle

Koerner Hall
11/21/2010 -  
Gunther Schuller: Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee
John Rea: Hommage à Vasarely
Alexina Louie: Obessions for Baritone and Orchestra
Harry Freedman: Town

Russell Braun (Baritone)
The Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk (Conductor)

A. Pauk(Courtesy of Esprit Orchestra)

Esprit Orchestra’s self-descriptive catch-phrase is “an orchestra unlike any other”. The concert of November 21 (entitled Obsessions) certainly bears this out. It featured music inspired by paintings and while we listened we were shown high-definition projections of the related artworks.

The four works can all be considered twentieth century counterparts to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, especially the first piece, Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, composed in 1959. Each piece consists of straightforward tonal accompaniment to the theme of a picture, some of which are more abstract than others. Antique Harmonies conjures up something even older than the merely antique, more a sort of ur-music. Abstract Trio is a total contrast, whimsical in nature, followed by Little Blue Devil, a jazz riff with a hepcat double bass strum. The Twittering Machine gives us - yes - twitters, with an underlying buzz. The machine seems to wind down, but then comes back to life. Arab Village, with its distant flute and percussion, is dreamy exoticism of a retro variety. An Eerie Moment is just that, a kind of stifled tone that wells up then quickly ends. Finally, Pastorale conjures up loneliness, leading to an ambiguous end.

The stage had to be re-arranged (this happens frequently at Esprit concerts, given the innovative nature of the works presented) for John Rea’s Hommage à Vasarely, composed in 1980. The program contains a sketch of the orchestral layout, and an explanation as to how the instruments were arranged in 12 groups (or “columns”) from the left side of the stage (where the highest pitched instruments were placed) to the right side (where the lowest pitched instruments were placed). In addition, the players were seated in eight rows so that one could hear “row after row of the 12-note perfect fifth chord separated from each other by a kind of timbral interval”.

So how did this really work? We were shown works featuring the trademark Vasarely trompe l’oeil - geometric flat works that seem to bulge in the middle or stretch at the margins. Similarly the music, which has little forward momentum and contains a beatless ground bass, seemed to swim and swoop across the stage. In short, ear trick counterparts to Vasarely’s eye tricks.

Alexina Louie’s Obsessions consists of two pieces for baritone and orchestra taken from an evening-long situational work designed to be played at the reopening of the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1993. The first, Monet, is set to words from a letter Monet wrote to his gardener, with instructions for planting at Giverny. The instrumentation gives a sparkly nimbus around the vocal line and the piece pulsates along (somewhat in the manner of John Adams). It seems a bit serious for its subject. (The visuals were one of the the waterlily paintings, and a photo of Monet in his garden.)

The second song, Van Gogh, is from a letter written by the artist to his brother in 1880. Images diplayed were one of the self-portraits and Starry Night. Starting with ”I want you to understand clearly my conception of art” it amounts to a testament of belief. It is an absolutley inspired composition, at least as presented with Russell Braun singing it so beautifully. The orchestra interperses the lines with big exclamation points, and the final line “founded less on anger than on love”, with the word “love” given high, soft repetitions has an effect similar to that of the end of Mahler’s Der Abschied. Breathtaking.

The final work was “Town” composed by Harry Freedman (1922-2005). “Town” in this case is Harold Town, undoubtedly the dominant visual artist in Toronto in the decades following World War II. He was a hugely productive artist and we were shown an array of his works: big, brash abstracts; more intricate, contained works that resemble designs for micro-electronics; hard-edge works; plus others with a calligraphic style. There was even a portrait. Freedman’s piece opens with a cacaphonous yawp, a reminder of Harold Town’s uncompromising embrace of controversy. (In many ways Freedman was Town’s composing counterpart in that era, with a huge output and financial success. They became friends when working on a film, Pyramid of Roses, in 1982.) In Town, noisy sections give way abruptly to quieter, more crafted sections. It all drifts away quietly, no doubt a reference to Town’s death in 1990 at age 66 (the piece was composed in 1991).

The Esprit Orchestra was founded by Alex Pauk in 1984 and has been industriously presenting 20th and 21st century music all these years. It could almost be called the Sunday Night Orchestra as that is when its concerts are held so that its members (a core group of 50 - there were 59 for this concert) can fit these gigs in with their other musical pursuits. The move to the marvellous Koerner Hall from one half the size has given their music even more room to resonate the way it deserves to. The projections were an added bonus, much more effective than pictures in a printed program.

Michael Johnson



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