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Sonic journeys

Glenn Gould Studio
03/10/2012 -  
Zoltán Jeney: Heraclitian Fragments
Igor Stravinsky: Octet
Peter Eötvös: Psy – Octet – Windsequenzen

Robert Aitken (flute), Keith Atkinson (oboe), Peter Stoll, Gary Kidd (clarinets), Kathleen McLean, Peter Lutek (Bassoons), Michele Verheul (bass clarinet), Christopher Gongos (horn), André Dubelsten, James Gardiner, Michael Fedyshyn (trumpets), Ian Cowie, Scott Good (trombones), Scott Irvine (tuba), Timothy Ying, Carol Lynn Fujito (violins), Douglas Perry (viola), Liza McLellan (cello), Troy Milleker (contrabass), Jospeh Macerollo (accordion), Richard Moore (cimbalom), Rick Sacks (percussion), Peter Eötvös (Conductor)

P. Eötvös(© Kalman Garas)

Since Peter Eötvös was going to be in Toronto as featured artist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s New Creations Festival, New Music Concerts nabbed the opportunity to ask him to choose and perform the repertoire in a chamber concert.

The concert opened with piece by a fellow Hungarian and contemporary, Zoltán Jeney, currently head of composition at the Liszt Academy, the country’s most noted music school. Heraclitian Fragments (1997/2004) is the last of a number of works inspired by the poet Dezso Tandori; “Heraclitian” is a reference to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus whose most-quoted statement is “no man ever steps in the same river twice”. The work (about 15 minutes long) calls for 13 players and gives initial prominence to the flute. It ripples and soars in almost bucolic fashion, then breaks into tiny detached phrases. Conductor Eötvös paid very close attention to the score.

The first of the three Eötvös pieces was Psy, completed in 1996, a piece with linkages from early in his career. In his teens he composed a piano work, Kosmos, inspired by Yuri Gagarin’s space flight of 1961. In 1993 came Psychokosmos, a concerto for cimbalom and orchestra. Psy is a compressed paraphrase of the concerto for cimbalom, cello, and flute/piccolo. The seven-minute piece calls to mind distant sounds that are not quite definable.

In 2008 Eötvös composed his Octet for the same instruments Igor Stravinsky used for his Octet in 1923; as the composer states, it enables players of that piece (flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, two trombones) to enlarge their repertoire. The program notes also state that it is a musical realization of Samuel Becket’s radio play, Embers. (Here is a fine example of the abstruse meeting the recondite. No further information is given - I am sure a thesis could be written discussing how this does or does not happen.) It was commissioned by the Reina Sofia School of Music in Madrid and written in memory of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who had died the previous year. The players use a variety of mutes to constantly manipulate the sounds of their instruments. It amounts to an exploration of alternative sonic possibilities of the wind instruments.

There is yet another Stockhausen link with the major work on the program, Windsequenzen which Eötvös worked on from 1975 to 2002. Its genesis goes back to 1970 when the composer spent six months in Japan (remember Expo 70 in Osaka?) as a member of Stockhausen’s ensemble. This sojourn introduced him to Zen Buddhism and this led to a work based on a special arrangment of harmonic intervals. The 28-minute piece has eight sections which the composer has given descriptive titles, but he did this after the piece was finished - there was no intention to write “picture music”. The titles refer to the air: still air, mountain wind, whirlwind, morning wind, north sea wind, south sea wind, east-west wind, stillness again. The learned notes explain something of the harmonic manipulations involved (don’t forget it took 27 years to complete!), but the important thing is that it works as a zen-like contemplative sonic experience conjuring up natural phenomena without being imitative. It requires a singular group: flute, oboe/english horn, clarinets (two), bass clarinet, tuba (!), double bass, percussion, and accordion - in this case played by Joseph Macerollo who subtly tied the work together.

Concluding the program was the Stravinsky Octet, the work that ushered in the composer’s lengthy and influential neo-classical phase. The program quotes Aaron Copland who was present at its premiere and who described the “general feeling of mystification” at such a radical departure. It still sounds piquant with its jaunty, circus-like, sardonic tone - but it seems so very straightforward after the preceding newer works.

Toronto’s New Music Concerts was co-founded by flutist Robert Aitken back in 1972. Its focus has been on the endless variety of new music for small ensembles. This was its 343rd event.

Michael Johnson



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