ESPRIT ORCHESTRA:SOPHIA PLUS reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

November 26, 2006
Esprit Orchestra’s SOPHIA PLUS
Jane Mallett Theatre

Sophia Gubaidulina writes music that makes instruments “speak with instrumental…gestures.” These gestures may sound like the rustle of leaves, the gibber of monkeys, the groaning of heavily laden timbers—not like music at all. Nevertheless, attending to a performance of her music, one may feel visited by the ability of king Solomon to understand the languages of nature.

Gubaidulina’s compositions, “Seven Words”, and “De Profundis”, played by Esprit Orchestra and distinguished guest artists, may be branches of European musical traditions connecting her to Haydn. But it is out of Russian roots connecting her to Dostoevsky that Gubaidulina’s meditations on suffering redeemed through love spring.

Both works, inspired by biblical scenes, are dedicated to bayan virtuoso Friedrich Lips who played for us this night, solo, and as part of the Esprit Orchestra conducted by Alex Pauk. Much has been written about the idea of the cross being enacted at all musical levels of “Seven Words”. At another level, the visceral impact of the music on one’s imagination is also worth a few words here.

Cello wielded by Esprit’s Paul Widner and bayan (Russian accordion) in the masterly hands of Lips initiate a duet of whining and groaning over which the strings wave like a breeze detached from all earthly suffering. The duet resumes an intensely focused dialogue with cello writhing glissando up and down register, jerking away into pizzicato, while bayan heaves and bays like an animal in pain, coming to rest, exhausted, in a passage of hollow stertorous breathing. The strings rise in a clamour and it is as if one were witness to a heart undergoing trauma, breaking apart fibre by fibre; as if one were in a city undergoing the agony of an impending aerial firestorm. The bayan’s slow drones suggest incoming bombers, the cello utters the air raid siren, and a picture arises in the mind of a city, like Dresden, thrusting blackened skeletal ruins up to the sky. Cello, bayan, and strings gradually disintegrate into the sub audible and all tensions end.

The evening began with “Concertino for solo flute, three flutes, and string orchestra” by Brian Current, featuring the solo flute of Robert Aitken. Brian Current’s work is becoming widely appreciated for the experiments with irregular waves of accelerating and slowing tempos he calls ‘slanted time’. “Concertino”, an attractive and theatrical piece, situates the three flautists at the back of the room. The music, made up of two-note units that pass back and forth between flutes and strings played arco and pizzicato, is sometimes arranged in call and response pattern. The solo work seems fiendishly difficult, but Aitken makes it look easy, and the piece as a whole has a delightful feeling, free of any harshness. Alex Hooper, a film set designer, had this to say:

“I particularly liked the Brian Current piece. It made me feel as if I were lying in field in the middle of a hot, hot summer, with a million frogs and insects buzzing around because of all the textures. I thought it was wonderful. And I thought Robert Aitken’s flute playing was fantastic. It had so much character. The whole piece was fresh and light—just a very happy piece.”

Serge Arcuri’s 2006 concerto in four movements for piano and string orchestra entitled “La Foret des clameurs” offered a contrasting mood. The piece was commissioned by pianist Louise Bessette who performed it. Arcuri offers illuminating hints about the intention of the piece in phrases like “the joy of giving clamour to those who are voiceless,” and “ forests whose trees seem isolated creatures but are in fact joined by a network of roots.

The first mood initiated by a downward arpeggio on the keys accompanied by trembling strings is spooky, apprehensive and anxious. A tempestuous passage follows punctuated by percussive chords on the piano and terminated by a sudden break. The second movement spreads like a liquid stain through piano and solo violin into a mood of soft melancholy, a Satie-like simplicity, more lonely than distressed. The third movement is up-tempo, strings pizzicato, with a nice, jazz like ground bass line, piano percussive modulating almost to the level of human speech. The piece ends with Bessette’s piano seeming to set off sympathetic vibrations in the strings, and the whole texture of sound evaporates into the space. A robust experience from a composer better known for his electroacoustic music.

It is very much to our civic credit that Esprit Orchestra has joined with the TSO, the Music Gallery, the Goethe Institut, Soundstreams Canada, Toca Loca and New Music Concerts to celebrate the music of Sofia Gubaidulina.

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