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Concert review: Murray Schafer's birthday piece for Esprit Orchestra a real howler

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Conductor Alex Pauk addresses the audience at Esprit Orchestra’s 30th anniversary concert at Koerner Hall on Sunday night (John Terauds iPhone photo).

You expect hearty hoots and hollers for a 30th anniversary bash, and Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra and an enthusiastic audience at Koerner Hall were not disappointed as they enjoyed a full musical dose from composer R. Murray Schafer on Sunday night.

Schafer, ever mindful of his (and our) place in nature, brought in a chorus of participants from an annual back-to-nature project who engaged in a fascinating dialogue with the Esprit Orchestra in the world premiere of Wolf Returns, commissioned by Esprit’s founding artistic director and conductor Alex Pauk for this occasion.

The orchestral portion began as an all-out, old-fashioned hootenanny, followed by more atmospheric moments, creating an engaging dialogue with the deliberately unpolished sounds of Native-inspired calls and chants coming from the back of the top balcony at Koerner Hall. There was even a moment of outright levity to go with a chant that is supposed to scare mosquitoes away, as orchestra members began to swat at imaginary insects.

This section ended in silence when Pauk slammed his fist down on a small blood-sucking predator on the podium rail.

Wolf Returns was Schafer at his best, mixing traditional music with his own ideas in ways that provoke as well as entertain.

One of the joys of new music concerts is hearing this kind of wonderful new piece for the first time. There were other treats as well, given that the programme reflected various relationships conductor and orchestra had nurtured over the past three decades.

Two older pieces Pauk had chosen made powerful, engaging statements as well: Iannis Xenakis’s 30-year-old For the Whales is a paragon of concision as he makes a string orchestra speak like whales. Colin McPhee, one of the icons of 20th century experimentalism, was represented by his gorgeous, luxuriant homage to the Balinese gamelan, Tabuh-Tabuhan. It is gamelan music  filtered through the lens of Samuel Goldwyn’s Hollywood movie studio, exotic yet borne aloft on its complex rhythms by the full force of a Western symphony orchestra.

O Magnun Mysterium: In Memorian Glenn Gould, a well-loved piece from Toronto composer Alexina Louie, like Esprit dating back to 1982, is an intriguing mix of string atmospheres and ghostly apparitions of J.S. Bach’s greatest hits. It was welcome on the programme, given the recent Gould anniversaries.

The evening opened with the programme’s sole disappointment, another world premiere, Ikaros agog … Daidalos on Edge, commissioned by Esprit from Montreal composer John Rea.

The tragic mythological story of Icarus and his wax wings offers up all kinds of orchestral possibilities, but Rea chose to dwell in a limited soundscape devoid of movement, much less flight. As far as this piece was concerned, Icarus toyed with the idea of flying in a Hamlet case of to be or not to be, sapping the piece of any sense of momentum or narrative tension.

(The only sign that there was any flight possible in this piece was a visual one, when Paul switched from keeping time in four to two two-thirds of the way through the piece, suddenly flapping his arms elegantly as if flying. It was too bad the music didn’t follow suit.)

But the rest of the evening was so charged with great performances of pieces worth hearing over and over again, that one could leave at the end happily wishing Esprit 30 more years of musical adventures.

John Terauds

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