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Three premieres, two remarkable choirs, two conductors, one superb violin soloist and two-thirds of a house at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday night added up to less than the sum of their parts for the second concert in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s New Creations Festival.
I left the concert wondering about the strange aversion to melody that has overtaken our culture. I don’t mean something you can whistle on your way to the streetcar stop; rather, I mean the notion of a sustained musical idea with a beginning and an end and a shape.
Listen to just about every genre of singing these days, and musical phrases are short and choppy. To someone who likes long, complete musical thoughts, this choppiness results in unfulfilled expectations.
I had the same reaction to all three pieces of music heard at Thursday’s New Creations programme. They were pieces made up of little melodic fragments arranged in repetition-variation form or piled on top of each other in series of shifting textures.
It was the latter form that opened the concert in Tod Machover’s Sparkle. It was such an overstuffed jumble of fragments played by acoustic instruments as well as electronics that it was virtually impossible to pick up on more than a handful of the composer’s promised quotations of the Beatles and Beethoven.
Guest conductor Carolyn Kuan, making her Toronto Symphony début with this year’s New Creations Festival, deftly handled Machover’s complex traffic-handling and time-keeping demands, and ably guided the orchestra through the premiere of Owen Pallett’s Violin Concerto immediately afterward.
The man we also know as Final Fantasy created a four-movement piece reminiscent of J.S. Bach. The soloist was charismatic Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who engaged with Pallett’s repeatitive patters with unforced enthusiasm.
It was like hearing fragments of Bach Partitas, with no particular destination in mind. The composer kept the orchestra at arm’s length, leaving it as a backup player to provide a bit of background colour and atmosphere.
I felt a bit cheated by the second movement. Pallett indicates it as a fugue, but I didn’t hear one. I did hear a bit of canonic writing between soloist and orchestra, which is sort of like a fugue’s baby brother.
Much worse was an overall aimlessness in the music. Combined with its repetitiveness, the piece came across as monotonous, a series of patterns looking for a reason to exist.
The second half of the evening was given over to Czech composer Krystof Maratka’s fertile imagination, which had come up with a 55-minute prehistoric cantata titled Vábení: Ritual of Prehistoric Fossils of Man. Music director Peter Oundjian conducted.
The chorus — a remarkably sturdy and nicely prepared group of singers made up of Lydia Adams’ Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers — sang a language Maratka had made up, as well. It also made sounds with its hands, feet, other assorted body parts and random toy wind instruments.
The orchestra was, here too, largely reduced to the role of sometimes reticent, sometimes bemused onlooket and physically pushed over to one side of the stage to make room for the singers.
The piece felt interminable, as the composer indulged himself in a seemingly unstoppable stream of little musical tricks. Fortunately, everyone on stage gave a strongly committed performance, making fine sounds throughout.
The audience, which contained a very large proportion of 20- and 30-somethings, appeared to enjoy everything, providing boisterous applause throughout the evening.
To me, despite the wonderful work of all the artists, the musical results were unconvincing. Here was music lacking a core — or perhaps a longer, sustained, coherent thought.
The New Creations Festival concludes on Saturday with the premiere of Machover’s A Toronto Symphony.