The Cantus Ensemble of Zagreb reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, June 1, 2008, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto.

The first thing one notices about this ensemble is that they are well rehearsed: their sound is clear, their playing is tight, their tone is rich, while the solo voices emerge distinctly. The first piece, a Chamber Symphony written in 1985 by an older composer, the late Boris Papandopulo, was reassuringly within the Romantic melodic tradition, and notable for the clarinet solo beginning the second movement. The wide spectrum of tempo changes showed to advantage the range of skills the ensemble commands. One also notices here, as became increasing evident throughout the evening, the commanding skill of conductor Berislav Sipus.

The second piece, by the 34 year old Kresimir Seletkovic, entitled “disORDER”, adds a violin and percussion to the ensemble and takes us firmly out of the Romantic melodic tradition. A bee-like drone of winds is punctuated by BAM!!! on the drum and more stringy sighs and more BAM!!!s. The piece builds a kind of naïve tension that settles into a creaky, hypnotic ferment in the middle that bursts out toward the end ornamented with some nice work on the vibraphone. This music is refreshing if not entirely convincing.

Add brass, trumpets and trombones to the stage, and the highlight of the concert appears: the world premiere of Michael Pepa’s “ISOMORPHE” for mezzo-soprano, violin, accordion, and ensemble (2008). The soloists are outstanding. Lynn Kuo’s violin is dramatic, both rousing and melancholy: Joseph Macerollo’s accordion blends beautifully into the depths of the ensemble, engaging the richly textured brass and percussion parts. The brooding tension and explosions of violence that are developed in this innovative and exciting piece of music are lulled towards the end by the crying from the heart quality of mezzo-soprano Katarzyna Sadej’s warm prayerful tones.

Berislav Sipus conducted his own intriguing composition partly from the podium and partly from the electronic keyboard beside him. Entitled “Un jardin sous la pluie avec un compositeur sans parapluie (2002), it is full of excellencies of all sorts, and also marked the introduction of extreme good humour into the evening. The effect of rain is done by musicians crinkling plastic baggies and rubbing together pages of the actual score taken from the music stands. The introductory section has a kind of new agey caravan music with camel bells sound. This develops through the interplay of two violins and trombone plus exciting drum work in a section of staccato jazzy riffs that morph into crescendo/diminuendo sonic waves that disintegrate, discorporate, crackle and hiss into a static energy that fades away. I really liked this one.

Srdjan Dedic’s “Ich Vergesse Dich Nicht (2005-07) is a structurally diffuse, texturally diverse cacophony of strings and brass ornamented with penetrating percussion effects that ends with a bang. The finale of the well organized evening’s programme brought the audience’s mood to the highest pitch of excitement and pleasure.

“Dolce Furioso (2005) by Dubravko Detoni is as funny as a Norman McLaren animation feature conducted by Mr. (Blackadder) Bean. Explosions of brass and percussion alternate with patches of silence: piano solos and accordion solos alternate sweetness and fury. The music moves into a sardonic, self-mocking, weird, episodic march much in tune with the mind of Frank Zappa. It would be hard to forget the penultimate sequence where conductor and ensemble are gesticulating with wild abandon, but not making a sound. Then all hell breaks loose and it’s like “Weasels Ripped My Flesh”.

I have to say the word ‘thanks’ to Michael Pepa and Les Amis Concerts for their part in this soundaXis ’08 concert of music that has plenty of meaning and can make you laugh.

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