CONTINUUM presents: COMMON CHORDS reviewed by David Fujino

April 20, 2008, The Music Gallery

Concerts with themes are tricky things.

In the case of “Common Chords” — a musical theme if I’ve ever heard one — we expected to hear a concert of similar sounds and similar musical preoccupations this evening.

But the music was not similar at all; and I know the applauding audience was okay with it.

The first piece, “About Scales” (1979) by Rudolf Komorous was a solo vibraphone line that alternated with dense held chords. This later translated into slow seesaw lines played by a cup-muted trombone, flute, and piano. Their sonorities often evoked the voicings of Gil Evans with their tonally ambiguous major-minor sounds. All in all, it was human, spare, and essential music.

Martin Smolka’s “O My Admired C Minor” (2002) repeated episodes of piercing strings and a screechy clarinet that kept showing up in the audience’s face. When a single note passed from cello to percussion to piano, and we identified with the resultant drawn-out sustenuto, everything, it seems, melted into the waiting chords. The music then stopped; and the flute’s final 2-note figure returned everything to silence. This piece had the pungency of a tightly-written essay.

But the standout composition this evening was Cassandra Miller’s “Goose Food” (2008) as it proved to be the most programmatic and dissimilar composition of them all.

It paired Robert Bringhurst’s recorded reading of Haida myths with flocks of high peepings from the piccolo/clarinet/strings, and it didn’t always work.

And especially for those of us interested in language, the tendency of the winds and strings to overpower and interfere with
Bringhurst’s spoken text was at first frustrating and then mostly irritating. In near total contrast, the orchestrated deliquescence and
pulling apart of sounds were truly arresting and mightily impressive, but you started wanting more of this amidst the sliding and slipping vaudeville that the piece increasingly had become. We appreciated the obvious craft and dedication and enthusiasm; unfortunately, the piece also grew to be distracting.

Thankfully, there was no time for distraction in the heroically paced performance of Gyula Csapo’s “Huacas” (2008) in which the valiant soprano Carla Huhtanen fully met the challenge of singing a text in Spanish, Aztec, and invented texts; a challenge which also required her to hit the stratosphere and then meld her ardent voice into the composition’s by now liquid flow.

“Huacas” (like “Goose Food”) was a language-and-music piece, but here Huhtanen was spotlighted by the composition so she could step forward confidently and tell the saddening story of the conquest and destruction of the Aztec civilization by the Spanish priesthood.

Amidst tempestuous swells and the marking time of the tympani and tubular chimes, Huhtanen sang bravely and defiantly against the overwhelming forces of fate and impending doom. The way she fought back against certain death with the life force of her songs was close to heroic.

But in the final reckoning, here back on earth, the concert truly was a success because of the supreme finesse and musicianship of all the players, the singer, and the conductor Gregory Oh, who brought these very different compositions to life and in the process — who knows? — maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t, reveal their common chords …

COMPOSERS
Rudolf Komorous (Canada), “About Scales” (1979), flute, trombone, violin, viola, vocal, piano, percussion
Martin Smolka (Czech) “O My Admired C Minor” (2002), flute, clarinet, violin, viola, piano, percussion, CD
Cassandra Miller (Canada) “Goose Food” (2008), flute, clarinet, violin, vocal, piano, percussion, CD +*
Gyula Csapo (Canada) “Huacas” (2008), flute, clarinet, violin, vocal, percussion, soprano +*

+ = World premiere
* = Canada Council for the Arts commission

PERFORMERS
Continuum ensemble with Carla Huhtanen (soprano) and Gregory Oh (conductor), Anne Thompson–flute, Max Christie–clarinet, David Archer– trombone, Benjamin Bowman–violin, Angela Rudder–viola,Paul Widner–cello, Laurent Philippe–piano, Ryan Scott–percussion & synthesizer, Trevor Tureski–percussion

David Fujino is a writer, actor and occasional trumpet player working out of Toronto. His reviews of music, theatre and dance may be found at The Live Music Report. More information about Mr. Fujino is available at this site.

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