Esprit Orchestra at 25 by Stanley Fefferman

This event was a major milestone gala, but let us talk about the music first. Esprit Orchestra’s founder and director, Alex Pauk, conducted his own composition, “Portals of Intent”(1993). It is scored for the entire 35 piece orchestra, including 7 percussionists and what seemed to be an 18 piece wind section flanking the stage on two sides. Big sound.

It is of interest to know the work was inspired by a reading of books on Meso-American sorcery by Carlos Castaneda, and focuses on this author’s ideas about using ‘will’ or ‘intent’ to remain ‘awake’ or ‘lucid’ in the dream state as a way of achieving rapid locomotion in the real world.

Flute, bells, and harp solo voices ripple out and merge with windy stirrings of strings: rattle of percussion, braying of brass, locomotive beat of timpani and piano, all dissolve towards meditative tranquility, resolve into engorged sonorities of orchestral complexity and subside again, suggesting a weave of moods, feelings and states of awareness. The fabric is a freely patterned circulatory system of colours, simultaneously teasing and engaging.

Alexina Louie’s “Shattered Night, Shivering Stars” (1997) was composed for a limited palette of small orchestra that excluded harp, brass, piano, and included only one percussion. Louie explores orchestral colours and textures, chord clusters that expand out of a single pitch into an orchestral colour field.

As the title suggests, there is a stellar, cosmic but fragmenting design to the work, so the musicians are called upon to employ many extended techniques, twittering, chittering, scraping, bowing on vibraphones, and temple bells, breathing into flutes, bending and gliding on strings, creating an outer space atmosphere.

The piece is based on a poem by Pablo Neruda that is about the devastation left by the loss of love, so in effect, it is a kind of blues: the slow grind of despair, the sense of being stranded, alone, in the vast space of interstellar darkness, the pitches extenuated away from any possible resolution, all these emotional elements find a home away from home in the pleasingly novel context of Alexina Louie’s composition.

John Rea describes his “OVER TIME (1987) for orchestra,” as ‘geometric music.’ The challenge it poses is how to write music based purely on instrumental colour without reference to melody or changes of theme and harmony. He works with timbres or colours that spiral through kaleidoscopic changes.

His sounds give visual impressions such as swirls and waves, be it of water, leaves, or grasses, ripples of wind and water swept sands, the dance of shadows and light everywhere. It is pleasant and fun to listen to for a while, but like many forms that rely on a minimized palette, the inevitable repetition is always flirting with monotony. Rea’s abrupt percussive conclusion is effective in clearing all cobwebs from the mind.

Alex Pauk deserves much credit for showcasing two works by older New Music composers: the late Tristan Keuris of Holland’s “SINFONIA” (1974), and “TABUH-TABUHAN” (1936) by the late Canadian ethnomusicologist, Colin McPhee. The latter work is of interest because it incorporates Balinese musical materials. It is scored for orchestra and 2 pianos, vigorously managed by Peter Longworth and Andrew Burashko.

These performances demonstrate once again, that there is no limit to the load Alex Pauk will shoulder in order to bring music he considers worthwhile in full scale display to his public. Therefore, it is fitting that on this night when he is celebrating the success of the 25th season of Esprit Orchestra, he should be awarded the Canada Council’s $50,000 Molson Prize.

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