Esprit Orchestra “Inspired by Traditions” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, November 23, 2008, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

Alex Pauk fused his remarkable Esprit orchestra into a machine with 75 moving parts to produce the 4 minute roller-coaster ride entitled “Short Ride on a Fast Machine”(1986) by John Adams. A concert opener if there ever was one, I think of it as a kind of minimalist update of the 1945 hit “McNamara’s Band,” where “The drums go bang and the cymbals clang and the horns they blaze away” while “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” fueled by nitroglycerin with a meth-amphetamine addict at the wheel laps the track. Good fun.

R. Murray Schafer’s [click on photo] piece “Dream Rainbow, Dream Thunder”(1986) looks back to the music of Wagner as it is honoured by the ‘fantasyland castle’ built by ‘Mad’ King Ludwig of Bavaria. A visit to this castle and Schafer’s subsequent early morning reverie at the keyboard in his own log cabin on a lake in the Haliburton Highlands brought the piece into being.  The opening minutes of this evocative work is a swelling of flutes, brass, winds and strings suggesting a romantic landscape that appears and dissolves in mists intimated by rippling harp lines and burbling vibes. The call of horns give the illusion of distant forests and the clarinets seem to be telling a story of enchantment.  This is a traditional romantic subject treated in a modernistic, avant-garde manner. Schafer’s own words about the work are worth quoting here: “ Dream Rainbow, Dream Thunder joins yesterday with days of long ago, and tomorrow with days that will never be.” The work was recorded on the recently defunct CBC label by Alex Pauk and the Esprit Orchestra.”

Valentin Silvestrov’s “Dedication Symphony” (1991) is strongly oriented toward ‘melody’ that he sees as a kind of ritual breathing and singing. After the orchestra opens with massive, resonating chords and sporadic blasts of brass, the violin soloist, Marie Bérard does a magical job of ‘singing out’ the melodies throughout the three linked movements. Her ‘calls’ are held in lingering, melancholic echoes by the orchestra that repeat and amplify repeated waves of sound. The second movement’s core is a solo violin melody so lyrical it inspires imitation by the birdlike flutes and deeply rooted forest groans that disintegrate like darkness fading into dawn. The third movement, which proved much too long for my powers of concentration, lumbered in a slow uniform tempo like a prehistoric sloth that all-too-gradually fades into extinction serenaded exquisitely by a solo violin melody that itself passes into palpable silence. Silvestrov uniquely blends melodic romanticism with atonality and a minimalist aesthetic to make a music that could guide the patient listener on a spiritual journey.

This evening came to a happy conclusion with Aaron Copland’s youthful “Piano Concerto #1” (1926). Jagged, jazzy, pulsing with Paris of the 20’s, American jazz, rag, boogey, and couldn’t-care-less-modernism, this 20 minute concerto in two sections shows Copland in command of all the musical traditions he’d learned under the great teacher, Nadia Boulanger, and using it all in the service of his own, native talent.  Andrew Burashko, pictured above, totally engages Copland’s muscular rhythmic shifts and tricky tempo twists, wrestles them to the mat and stays on top during the discordant cadenza in dialogue with two muted trumpets. This rich and varied work, incorporating slow blues and snappy Broadway show music that was originally panned by critics has become the party tune of present day concerts.

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