ESPRIT ORCHESTRA: “BREATHLESS” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, February 5, 2009, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

Ev’ry bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight”                   –William Blake–

Alexina Louie’s Infinite Sky With Birds (2006) takes off from a moment of delight when a flock of birds rise towards what feels like infinite freedom. Louie captures the physicality of that image through sound. Strings and winds flutter: musical fragments flit from one group of instruments to another. The silver transparency of solo flute music expands by the brass into endless chromatic rainbows. The orchestration is varied and beautifully balanced. This is gentle, non-violent, positive, and intelligent music.

Impatience, defined as” waiting fast,” is the little paradox at the heart of John Rea’s Figures Hatives (Hurried Figures)(2006). The dry scrape of harp strings punctuated by lugubrious bassoon introduces the paradox. From this ground, the soloist, Marie Bérard, and the Esprit Orchestra pass the music between them impatiently, sounding as if someone were abruptly shifting the balance knob on a stereo system back and forth between right and left speakers. The violin song threads among ballooning tympanic volumes. Mlle. Bérard’s sonorities alternate between nervous tremolo and hoedown-fiddler harshness. Her solos, some of them very ‘hurried’ indeed, are echoed by winds and brass. In other parts towards the end, her violin seems to be driving the orchestra as if it were the throttle of a train. Rea creates separate layers of sound that seem to float over one another. An occasional whip-interrupts the build-up of nail-biting tension.  The whole performance is marked by an exciting musicality.

Unsuk Chin describes her 20 minute work, Double Concerto (2002) for piano, percussion and ensemble as “a music of highly coloured bearing and expression, free-flowing and agile, unfolding sometimes in completely unexpected directions.” The soloist parts sometimes shadow each other. I particularly enjoyed a dialogue of prepared piano and muted vibraphone that inspired me to imagine waves of rodent feet running over a heap of empty green coke bottles. Below this imagery, peripatetic percussionist Ryan Scott introduced the jungle boom of tom-toms, clank of cowbells, and sparky xylophone runs, against which slidey string and wind sounds whistle, whine and decay. This all makes for beautiful listening.

“How but in custom and in ceremony / Are innocence and beauty born?”  W.B. Yeats.

Esprit Orchestra Conductor Alex Pauk introduced Three Studies from Couperin (2006) as a ‘breather’. Indeed it was. The melodic material of this music that Couperin wrote for harpsichord 300 years ago remains in its understated, ceremonious simplicity as a pleasure easy to enjoy, particularly at the end of an evening of knotty new music. Thomas Adès’ reconfigured arrangements add layers of subtle variations to Couperin’s formulaic repetitions, and his orchestral arrangement of the original solo keyboard writing introduces gently waving, anachronistic brownish harmonies that flutter along the edges of comedy and romance. The inclusion of this piece was an inspired bit of programming.

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