The Esprit Orchestra At Koerner Hall in Toronto on Wednesday
Are you fishing behind the net? Have you hung your coat in the direction of the wind?
Those two synonyms for futile or tardy action are pictured literally in a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Montreal composer Ana Sokolovic saw the painting, which also depicts seven more proverbs, at the Art Gallery of Ontario and went looking for sounds to match the work’s barbed folk wisdom and robust visual style.
The result was Nine Proverbs, a dramatic, highly coloured orchestral piece she completed in 2002. Esprit Orchestra gave it a whirl on Wednesday during a concert that also included hefty works by Maki Ishii, Valentin Silvestrov and Unsuk Chin.
Nine Proverbs began with a bright, bird-like clamour, spiked by mock-heroic flourishes from the trumpets – this for “falling between two stools into ashes,” or being unable to make up one’s mind. A solitary state of confusion, depicted with many players, naturally became an external projection of the mind’s internal bickering.
The crowded sociability of Brueghel’s painting invaded each of Sokolovic’s sonic pictures, which rippled with an energy that turned manic in a couple of wild yelping episodes for two E-flat clarinets. This was the most amusingly deranged music I’ve ever heard for an instrument often typecast for its shrill, excitable sound. She also pitched a double bass solo (played by Tom Hazlitt) at the uppermost extreme of its register, and engineered a joint effort by grumbling basses and trombones that sounded like a small plane idling. Several of her wind combinations were so well and unusually blended that I couldn’t quite catch the recipe on one hearing.
My one complaint about this piece was that its continuous form made it difficult to connect music with proverb. It would have been nice to know, say, exactly when the orchestra was “pissing on the moon” (attempting the impossible).
Ishii’s South-Fire-Summer (1992) pushed percussion soloist Ryan Scott near the edge of the possible a couple of times, as he scampered between bits of his enormous battery or flailed out a high-speed passage on marimba. The orchestra’s moody accompaniments often had a geologic weight, as masses of sound shifted against each other almost arrhythmically. Ishii’s discriminating ear took us to some new and striking places, though I think the episodic cadenza he imposed on the opening was too long.
Silvestrov’s Postludium (1984) for piano and orchestra made good use of a kind of monumental monody, channelling the power of the full ensemble into simple forceful motifs with a strong resolving bass. The piano, played by Ivan Sokolov, cast fragrant sprays over the broad orchestral actions, emerging more prominently to deliver a pop-like tune with an accompaniment that wouldn’t have been out of place in a song by Alicia Keys. The orchestra, meanwhile, doggedly repeated to a short, unstable tunelet in a different key. Layers of irony and sincerity seemed to fold together in this piece, which at times had the spacious, evocative feeling of a film score.
Chin’s Rocana (2008) was a big, tense work, full of jagged tremolo and bellows-like swells of sound. Much of the piece felt like a struggle between forces of fluctuating intensity: a chorale-like section for winds, for instance, stood calmly against a series of shrieking attacks from the violins. This music suffered perhaps by coming at the end of a packed program, and also by rather prosaic direction from conductor Alex Pauk, who often seemed content to merely beat time through sustained sections that needed more shape, and more feeling. He and the orchestra had better innings in the other pieces, especially Nine Proverbs.