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Can a city be a symphony?

Roy Thomson Hall
03/09/2013 -  
Andrew Staniland: Four Angels (World Premiere)
Steven Mackey: Four Iconoclastic Episodes
Tod Machover: A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City (World Premiere)

Pekka Kuusisto (Violin), Steven Mackey (Electric Guitar)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (Host and Conductor), Carolyn Kuan (Conductor)

The third and final concert of the 2013 New Creations Festival began with a world premiere, Four Angels, by Andrew Staniland who was the TSO’s Composer in Residence from 2006 to 2009. The 15-minute work is in 11 linked sections and, according to the composer’s notes, seems to be about bits of everything.

The four angels of the title refer to four historical trends “human progress, regression, suffering, and hope” as portrayed in a book of photography that inspired the composer. There are also the four instruments the composer (managing an electronic keyboard) has selected for amplification at certain moments: the bassoon, piccolo, harp, and cello. The work begins in a scurrying mode which grabs attention before things start to wander. The bassoon has an entertaining set of riffs and we get interludes that conjure up a tinny old radio or a vanishing railway train. At one point the piccolo is “hypered” (is that a word? - it ought to be, given the hyper instruments displayed over the course of the festival) as is the harp. I can’t say either instrument materially benefits from this.

I should probably hear Four Angels again before making final judgement, but it seems to be a product of someone suffering Attention Deficit Disorder. Perhaps that’s the point.

We next heard the Canadian premiere of Steven Mackey’s Four Iconoclastic Episodes for violin, electric guitar, and string orchestra, composed in 2009. Mackey (head of music at Princeton University) was the guitarist. In his remarks he acknowledged the oddity of the juxtaposition of his instrument with an unamplified violin backed by a classical string orchestra, and referred to the piece as “music made by a mutt” - in other words, a kind of mongrel.

Some decades ago I heard an experimental work for amplified rock instruments and full symphony orchestra and the orchestra was so overpowered that they might just as well have stayed home - and amplification has increased exponentially since then. Mackey’s instrument, however, is just gently amplified but is still very much the lead instrument over the violin - and Pekka Kuusisto is a rockin’ violinist if anyone is.

The four episodes are discreet pieces, starting with “Like an animal” which becomes a kind of nattering duel between the two solo instruments. “Salad days” was inspired by some popular African music and, in the composer’s words, contains “bright stacctos and plucky arpeggios”. “Lost in splendour” has a lot of shifting chords and then “a tender song without words” which sounds like something Percy Faith used to compose (if anyone can remember who he was). The final section is “Destiny” in which the violin shows off a greater range of expressiveness than the repetitive guitar.

I suppose introducing the electric guitar as a concerto instrument might lead to further development of a genre. A precursor to cite might be Ralph Vaughan Williams (!) who composed a Concerto for tuba and orchestra back in 1954; several composers have followed suit although I am not aware that any of the resulting pieces has found a place in the repertory. Posterity will reveal all.

Carolyn Kuan conducted the piece, once again impressing with her sense of intelligent awareness and control. She conducted five of the nine pieces in this year’s festival; it would be nice to see her conduct something from the traditional repertory.

How often does a new symphony become a news item? This is what happened with Tod Machover’s A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City. A year or so ago he sent out a broad invitation to anyone in the city to submit ideas and around 10,000 people from all walks of life responded. He and others at the MIT Media Labs constructed the 25-minute work, as well as a “graphic score” (credited to Peter Torpey) which looks like something a person with synethesia might produce. (It’s very attractive). It was projected on the giant video screens above the orchestra, along with other images associated with the city (a bit of a travelogue at this point) and images of some of the people contributing ideas. A few voice-overs said some nice things and I’m afraid it got rambly and banal. The latter part of the work (sections called “City soaring” and “Toronto dances”), where Machover took more charge, has a genial lilt and good forward motion.

The warning chimes on the city’s subway trains were the only truly local sounds contained in the piece. Lots of cities have traffic noises, waves lapping on the shore, people playing games in a park, etc. He mused about doing a similar symphony in other cities but one can’t help wondering just how individual they would be. (After all, Beethoven symphonized just one thunderstorm - location not specified.)

While the piece was being performed in the concert hall a corresponding light show was “performed” at the city’s iconic CN Tower (still the world’s second tallest free-standing structure I hasten to add) while, thanks to the CBC, the music was streamed for people watching the light show. The CN Tower always has a light show playing after sundown so I don’t know if much difference was noticed.

It is hard to tell if the work will ever be performed again. The first half amounts to a hastily thrown-together documentary about the making of the piece which, overall, could have used less perspiration and more inspiration.

The New Creations Festival returns next year for its tenth edition and the featured guest composer will be John Adams.

Michael Johnson



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