May 13, 2007
The Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

The photo depicts a public celebration of enigmatic love. The enigma begins with Mignon, a young female singer devoted to the hero of Goethe’s novel, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.”

Two hundred years later, a vocal work entitled “Letters from Mignon” by R. Murray Schafer, sung by mezzo-soprano Eleanor James, was premiered by the Calgary philharmonic.

Last night, 20 years after its premiere, Ms. James performed “Letters to Mignon”, this time with Esprit Orchestra under the baton of Alex Pauk. Schafer identified the ‘Mignon’ letters as “letters from Eleanor to me…celebrating our love for the first time in public.” Evidently, he enjoyed the performance.

Shauna Ralston also excited the audience with her virtuoso performance of “Grandma’s Sore Back,” three compositions by Douglas Schmidt based on a book of children’s stories about disobedient children. The first section is a solo performance of startling chords, eerie slides, and the application of two bows. The second section is bouncy bowing backed by xylophonic staccato punctuated with percussive cracks like the sound of a major bone snapping.

The third section is built up of snare drum rattle, locomotive cello chatter in an ascending series that culminates into a scream, and strings rising like a storm of angry bees that alternately drone and crash. Ms. Ralston’s cello slides and whines over rolling piano thunder and drum rattle, her tempo ever accelerating till, without warning, she lays down her black carbon fibre cello and walks off the stage whistling a very catchy tune. Needless to say, the audience caught the tune and whistled it to call Ms. Ralston back for her ovation.

After the first intermission, Shauna Rolston played Ligeti’s “Concerto for Cello and Orchestra”, with the Esprit Orchestra exquisitely conducted by Alex Pauk.

The virtuosity of Ms. Ralston and members of the orchestra, particularly Tom Hazlitt on bass and Erica Goodman on harp, served up a feast of exotic timbres and sonorities, including the extended silences that ended the movements.

After the second intermission, Joanne Kong, doubling on prepared piano and amplified harpsichord, supported by celesta, harp, cowbells, woodblocks and kitchen bowls, led the Orchestra in Michael Colgrass’ “Side by Side”. The thin, tinny timbres of this rhythmically based piece that ticks like a clock, whistles and plinks and hiccoughs, combine to create a highly textured impression I’d dub Harpo Marx with bats in his belfry playing on a movieola piano.

This concert was the “red hot finale” to Esprit Orchestra’s first “New Wave Composer’s Festival.” With the backing of several major sponsors, it looks like this orchestra, which is celebrating its ‘Silver Anniversary’, will be here to catch and cradle the next wave of new work, next year, same time. Cheers.

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