MRDE-music review: Mystery and Illusion
A presentation of The Esprit Orchestra
with David Swan (organ and piano)

Thursday, December 1, 2005 9 pm
Metropolitan United Church, 56 Queen Street E., Toronto

Wow. This is a delayed review, coming as it does 3 days after the concert. I'm less inspired than usual to write this review (not, I rapidly add, because the concert was anything less than excellent, but due to laziness and a desire to do other things). But I cannot disappoint my many fan, so out of duty rather than inspiration (or irritation) comes the following torrent of words.

For you proofreaders out there, there was no typo in the first paragraph. Ignore this assertion at your peril.

The Esprit Orchestra boldly sallied forth from the Jane Mallet Theatre, went north a little, and ended up in the Metropolitan United Church, near the core of Toronto's main center of unbridled commerce and consumerism, and yet again I defied my usual impulse to run from the ill-designed, crowded and repellant city after a long day of irritating wage slavery. Glad I did ... I'm choosing good shows this year.

The "Met" is the home of the largest organ in Canada, it's long pipes elegantly incorporated into the gothic style church interior. I should go back to hear this organ again, as tonight's concert only demonstrated part of the attraction of this impressive instrument's impressive bellows action.

4 pieces tonight; as I've come to expect from Esprit, the works were varied in style and content. Tonight's focus was on spatially separated music; music played with the musicians dispersed throughout the hall, not just in the traditional stage/audience configuration we've come to know and love in the bulk of the orchestral repertoire.

Piece number one: Canadian John Rea's Hommage a Vasarely. As Rea says in his notes (which are a thing that must be read), "for, although the score and its contents do appear to be conventional, they actually comprise a code ... to propel undulations of sound masses about the concert stage." This is exactly what the score did. You could practically see the sound flying around; this metaphor is appropriate, given that the work was intended to "be seen during performance as much as it is of course to be heard."

The mighty organ appeared in the second work on the program, Henry Brant's Ice Field, Spatial Narratives for Large and Small Orchestral Groups. More on that later.

Charles Ives' (the only deceased composer on the program) The Unanswered Question (the third piece on the show) is a quixotic gem. Without Ives's program note, it might be hard to make sense of the piece; but if you can't make sense of it, just shut the hell up and listen. It's great ... when well played (as it was at this show) the solo trumpet part is wonderful, powerful and mysterious. The string part is beautifully contemplative. The flutes are what make the thing quixotic ... they seem to exist separately from everything else. It makes total sense if you read the notes (below); if you don't read them ... why shouldn't a piece of music be allowed to be puzzling? (parenthetical note ... Brant credit Ives as the inspiration for his use of spatial elements in the bulk of his composition.)

IVES: Notes to The Unanswered Question:
“The strings play [as silently as possible]…They are to represent the ‘Silence of the Druids Who Know, See, and Hear Nothing.” The trumpet [asks] ‘the Perennial Question of Existence’…The hunt for ‘The Invisible Answer’ undertaken by the flutes and other human beings becomes gradually more active, faster and louder…[until] the ‘Fighting Answers’…seem to realize a futility and begin to mock ‘The Question’—the strife is over for the moment. After they disappear, ‘The Question’ is asked for the last time, and the silences are heard beyond in ‘Undisturbed Solitude.’”

Puzzling ... in discussing Brant's work after the show, one of the victims of my company opined that some people weren't sure what to make of Brant's piece. I could see why ... some moments were puzzling, yet hilarious (I'm thinking of dance sections, similar in some ways to the dance music from Bernstein's West Side Story) that seemed to come out of nowhere. It's a long, varied, quixotic piece that (as far as I can piece together from hearing about Brant, and reading transcripts of or hearing interviews with him) reflects the character of a little, mischievous, quixotic old (93 now, about 90 when he wrote Ice Field) man. The 14 varied sections of the piece may almost be a character study, reflecting a very individual (even, to re-use a word from my last review, perverse, but perverse in the non-reproductive act way) sense of musical pacing and continuity, and sing distinctive and varied material, from atonal series of rushing notes heard from different locations in the hall, through the aforementioned "dance" music, to traditionally tonal yet austere invocations of an ice-dominated terrain. Individual is good ... I've heard far too much contemporary music that sounds like a product of a school or writing, not of an individual creating their own sound world, allowing others to see if they enjoy hearing the world in a slightly (or greatly) different way.

The mighty organ was heard in Brant's piece (and no other), often in its lowest registers; the sounds were alternately funny or very atmospheric; you'd rarely hear the lowest notes on this organ used in such an exposed, naked way.

A final few words on Brant. Brant has consistently worked with spatial elements in his music throughout his career, mainly to allow him to present very intricate counterpoint clearly. This work is a tour de force of specialization; if you can hear it live, do so. It will loose punch without this element; a stereo recording will just be a pale representation. Oh, for a four channel radio broadcast (the concert tonight was recorded by the good ol' CBC, but they are, alas, only in stereo and their intelligent yet government subsidized programming is under apparent threat. Hopefully they at least broadcast this before the threat becomes reality).

The concert closed with Valentine Silvestrov's Postludium, which is familiar to me from a recording. Sometimes hearing a piece you know well from a recording live is a revelation .... not so tonight; the recording and the performance were quite similar. In talking to David Swan, tonight's piano soloist after the show, a reason as to why the two were so similar came to light; as I suspected, the piece was extremely precisely notated, little was left to chance. The balance in orchestral sound in the Esprit performance was great, the playing quite precise (a tribute to the orchestra and soloist, who had only two rehearsals of this substantial piece). The piece itself is like a long , drawn out dissipation of energy; material is repeated, (excuse me while I indulge yet again in fuzzy emotion-talk, which has already been far too prominent in this review) each time a little more distant, fractured, dissolved. Silvestrov is a "new music for people who hate new music composer', focusing on melody and repetition of easily recognizable material, and using a more traditional harmonic palette than was once considered "fashionable", but doing so in a unique manner. The materials, style and harmony are similar to that employed by composers such as Arvo Part, John Tavener, or (for a Canadian example) Marjan Mozietich, but the music sounds like Silvestrov.

The first Esprit Orchestra concert this season struck me as a high energy, well performed and interesting show. This show at least equaled the first. Keep it up, Esprit.