“New music” can be many things: difficult, challenging, original, mind-bending. But thanks to Alex Pauk and his Esprit Orchestra, in their final concert of their 30th anniversary season, “new music” on Thursday night was powerful, gripping, and creative.
The key to the evening’s success was two-fold, as it is with all successful concerts. First, we had compositions on the program that were well-written, radiating a mysterious magnetic power that unaccountably draws audiences into their unique orbit. But audiences don’t come into direct contact with abstract compositions – they come into contact with live musicians, with their human skill and emotional depths. The musicians of the Esprit Orchestra, and the soloists who played with them, provided a potent human component to the evening’s success.
Of the three major compositions on the program, I was first taken with Zosha Di Castri’s Alba, a work from 2011. Di Castri is a Canadian currently working on her doctorate in composition at Columbia, and Alba presented us a portrait of a Northern Alberta dawn, a natural phenomena given a mid-winter, rather than its traditional spring-like, setting.
The piece began as you might expect, with gusts of winter wind blowing out of a dark night, punctuated by the sounds of awakening birds. But Alba is no simple nature portrait. Di Castri’s work is a musical rumination on the notion of beginnings and endings, and the elusive boundary between them.
The most striking gesture of the entire work came right at its end, when a developing musical line was cut off abruptly, shocking us, really, with the unexpected juxtaposition of life and death. The entire work was full of similar musical ideas, developing structures that emerged from sonic darkness, only to return, often, to a musical state of nature before starting to emerge once again. A fine work of art, the piece was given a very atmospheric and hypnotic reading by Pauk and Esprit.
Erik Ross’s Burn, a concerto for alto sax, percussion and orchestra, commissioned by Esprit, and given its world premiere on Thursday, also began life as a portrait of a natural phenomena, but moved well past any tone painting in its three-movement structure.
Ross, who moves easily between musical styles, created something that touched on the free jazz of the 60s and 70s, of Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with its alto sax and percussion soloists. The piece begins loudly, aggressively, with frantic runs by the saxophonist and wild stabs by the drummer on his many percussion instruments – and it stays at this level for a good long time.
However, at one point in the proceedings, percussionist Ryan Scott actually walked across the stage to take up the mallets of a vibraphone, and he and saxophonist Wallace Halladay embarked on a gorgeously lyrical duet, catapulting the work into brand-new emotional territory, from which it eventually emerged to return to the frenzy of the opening bars.
Both Scott and Halladay performed brilliantly in the concerto – Halladay especially – and allowed us to take a relatively unexpected and sometimes harsh musical language and relate to it completely. The orchestra, again, played with passion and commitment, raising the emotional temperature of Koerner Hall to an appropriately “burn”-like level.
In Denis Gougeon’s TUTTI, also commissioned by Esprit, a work on a different emotional level than that of either Di Castri or Ross, the orchestra handled the showy, celebratory character of the music with great aplomb.
The concert ended with two encores; in effect, arrangements written for Esprit of the music French composer Marius Constant wrote for The Twilight Zone, and a setting of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. The Hendrix was a big hit, performed twice, but you know what? By the time we got there, it seemed like a completely unnecessary crowd-pleaser. We didn’t need a dolled-up reminder of a pop classic to feel some musical heat – we had been getting it all evening. Kudos to Esprit, its musicians and composers, for providing it to us.