Esprit Orchestra Concert: THE RIVER reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, January 30, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

The melodic lines of Giya Kancheli’s Styx are long and slow flowing like its namesake river.  Styx opens with two harmonic masses—a choral chord imitated by the orchestra—threaded by the voice of Teng-Li’s viola singing a thin cantabile melody, innocent and sad. The music expands in concentric circles of sound, rhythms that ripple out and out in nuanced timbral rings suggesting a post-human continuum beyond time.

Kancheli subjects his calm flow to opposing forces: sound blocks come to rest in resounding silences, are punctured by deafening motivic flashes, cadential outbursts, galloping  passages that recall the grotesque ribaldry of Orff’s Carmina Burana. Binding these contrasts is the fine wire of the viola’s quiet voice.

This strange work—a dirge in memory of two composers—invokes both the calm of death accepted and the excitement of vivid memories. Ostinato phrases sparkle in exchanges between brilliantly paired instruments: piano and celeste, viola and horn, chorus and gong. Hymns change places with Georgian folk-songs, bits of Shakepearean dialogue, ritual nonsense, and invocations of the names of the deceased. There is much beautiful sadness here, no whimpering, and this 35 minute epic ends with a bang on the word “Joy”.

Keeping in mind that the standard of performance for Styx (1999) is violist Yuri Bashmet with the Musicians of the Marinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev, I  was able to enjoy without distraction Teng-Li’s performance with the Esprit Orchestra and Elmer Iseler Choir conducted by Alex Pauk.

The evening’s program jumped forward in mood and in time to Douglas Schmidt’s Discouraged Passion (that Esprit premièred in 1999). This percussively rhythmic, high-spirited work is based on a 19th Century Brazilian tango lyric sung by a lover who is breaking up with his girlfriend because he hates the way her family abuses him.

Schmidt on his bandoneon, the hand organ traditional in South American brothels and popularized by Astor Piazzolla, adds  a chuffing virtuosic bounce to the staccato  harmonies of the orchestra and the recitative of the Singers. The pounding pianism of Stephen Clarke behind some of Schmidt’s descending chords was specially exciting. This work was fun, but the performance seemed to lose a bit of steam about halfway through its 15 minutes on stage.

Jose Evangelista’s Symphony Minute (1994) has the 4 traditional movements and accomplishes its mission in 7 minutes. Like Debussy, Evangelista inclines away from development of his themes: he gets them out there and it’s done. His movements are recognizable and very well constructed. There is a delightful quality to his work—derived in part from the humour connected to relief at how quickly symphonic time passes here. There are some enjoyable harmonic passages involving horn and cello in the first movement, and intriguing Moorish themes by the winds in the slow movement. Alex Pauk’s conducting was  fine, bringing out all the orchestral textures in noticeable relief, however at times a bit more forte than I required.

The Elmer Iseler Singers led by Lydia Adams performed Györgi Ligeti’s 9 minute Lux Aeterna for unaccompanied sixteen-part mixed choir. With sopranos, altos, tenors and sometimes even basses singing the same sequence of notes separated by small time intervals, the focus of the work is mostly on vocal timbres and textures emerging from and dissolving into a floating harmonic cloudstream. The phrase ‘choir of angels’ comes easily to mind.

Under Ms. Adams’ direction individual vocal textures were more distinctly defined and therefore rougher than I am used to hearing: the soprano tones in particular had very sharp edges which I did not enjoy, while the prominence of the basses in the final blocks was grand. Nonetheless, Lux Aeterna held the audience in a rapture of attention from start to finish.

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