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Con brio indeed!

Roy Thomson Hall
03/03/2012 -  
Jörg Widmann: Con brio
Peter Eötvös: Replica for Viola and Orchestra (*)
Derek Charke: Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra

Teng Li (Viola), Kronos Quartet
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Eötvös (*), Peter Oundjian (Conductors)

Kronos Quartet & P. Oundjian (© Dale Wilcox)

The curator for this year’s New Creations Festival is Hungarian composer/conductor Peter Eötvös. Each of the three events features one or two of his works conducted by Eötvös, plus other works conducted by the TSO’s Music Director, Peter Oundjian.

This (the second of the three concerts) started off with a dashing performance of Con brio, a concert overture by German composer Jörg Widmann. It consists of a collage of deconstructed sounds from Beethoven’s 7th and 8th symphonies enmeshed in what I can only describe as instrumental chattering. Maestro Oundjian urged startlingly sharp outburst from the orchestra. It’s a real “sit up and pay attention” piece despite its quiet ending.

Jörg Widmann is also a clarinettist and will be performing his own Elegie for Clarinet and Orchestra at the final New Creations concert.

Peter Eötvös took the podium for the North American premiere of his Replica for Viola and Orchestra written for the La Scala Orchestra who premiered it in 1999. The title is the Italian word for “reply”, and the work amounts to a dialogue between the viola and an orchestra of about 50 players, with prominence given to the five violists. It was composed at the time of his opera The Three Sisters (after the Chekhov play). I am not familiar with the opera but the music most certainly correlates with the moodiness of the play and its characters’ sadly futile attempts to make significant contact with one another. It consists of one 15-minute movement in slow tempo giving it a probing, meditative quality. The TSO’s principal violist Teng Li once again demonstrates why she keeps being assigned high-profile solo work with a sensitive performance characterized by both steel and nuance.

The final work was the world premiere of Canadian composer Derek Charke’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra with the Kronos Quartet, noted for their hundreds (over 700 actually) of new works over their 38-year career. This is a 22-minute work for full orchestra which is deployed to the max at times. The string quartet gets quite a workout while evolving rhythmic pulses lead into an exuberant section reminiscent of Elmer Bernstein; the big sound disintegrates, however, leading to a sombre, drifting finale. The Nova Scotia-based composer travelled to Baffin Island where he recorded the vocalizations of narwhals and ring seals; their swooping sounds (devoid of any electronic manipulation) are woven in to the piece’s final measures.

There is precedent for the use of marine mammal sounds in musical composition: whales were discovered (for musical treatment) by John Tavener and Alan Hovhaness back in the 60s and there was even a live performance, Whalesong (1986), for humans singing with orcas at the Vancouver Aquarium. It’s not a worn out cliché however when used as effectively as in this piece.

The near capacity audience went wild over this piece - and, in fact, gave an enthusiastic reception to the entire program. The orchestra was in great form as well.

Michael Johnson



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