After almost a year’s gestation, Tod Machover’s A Toronto Symphony finally had its premiere Saturday night, as a finale to this year’s Toronto Symphony New Creations festival. And while the piece had its affecting moments, it was something short of a triumph.
Machover is an ebullient, energetic font of fascinating ideas about the composition of music and the changing relationship of composers and audiences, and A Toronto Symphony was full of novel organizational means by which individual Torontonians – kids, regular citizens, some musicians – could participate in the creation of the work. However, perhaps because of its different sources, the finished product could never quite make up its mind what it wanted to be. Sometimes it sounded like the music that might have been composed for the opening ceremonies if Toronto had ever won that Olympic bid. Sometimes it was a collage of sounds and voices from the city, interspersed with musical commentary. It was never quite one thing, and it suffered for it.
Part of the problem with the piece is that it tried to be a sound portrait of Toronto, an impossibility on many levels, one of which is that there’s, as far as I can tell, only one truly identifiable Toronto sound – the little dah-dee-dee motif that announces the opening and closing of the subway doors (which got a laugh of recognition Saturday night when Machover used it in his piece). Nonetheless, it was the portions of A Toronto Symphony where Machover used the sounds of the city both he and his collaborators recorded on site that were the most affecting parts of the work – seagulls from Cherry Beach, traffic from Kensington Market, the thwack of a ball hitting a bat at a city playground – either played into the piece or, more often, recreated by the orchestra. At these moments, a portrait of Toronto did start to emerge, filtered and magnified by the work of a clever composer.
But these sections were the exception rather than the rule in A Toronto Symphony , clustered as they were near the beginning of the work. When Machover retreated into his imagination, to reflect on the sounds and experiences he had collected here, the piece took on the shape and texture of just another contemporary orchestral work (with the influence of Aaron Copland often casting long shadows over it), and the originality of its conception got a bit lost. It’s almost as though the exciting experience of creating the work became more significant to its composer than its final realization. In the end, A Toronto Symphony might have proven its worth as a fascinating social experiment rather than a powerful piece of music.
In contrast, the second world premiere on Saturday’s program (and how long has it been since someone wrote that phrase in describing a Toronto Symphony concert), Andrew Staniland’s Four Angels , I thought, worked extremely well as a coherent work of musical art. Alberta-born Staniland is well into his composing career, and he created a piece, based on his reactions to early twentieth-century photographs that used the tools of music – identifiable motifs, pacing of louds and softs, surprise, originality – to create a powerful emotional reaction in his listeners. American composer Aaron Copland, in answering two often asked questions about music, once said: “Is there a meaning to music? My answer would be yes. Can you state in so many words what that meaning is? My answer would be no.” Four Angels was proof of Copland’s truth – that the piece had meaning, there is no question. But what that meaning might be lies just outside the realm of verbal understanding, where vital musical truth lies. Four Angels was, then, that rarity – a true work of musical art. Hopefully, the TSO will manage to repeat it some day in its regular concert series.
The final work on Saturday’s program was Stephen Mackey’s Four Iconoclastic Episodes , featuring himself on electric guitar and the wonderful Pekka Kuusisto on violin. The work managed to catch fire in a couple of its movements, all based on different forms of music Mackey loves, but often seemed more a vehicle for his own playing than a piece with a coherent musical message.
But this ninth New Creations Festival has created an exciting two weeks at Roy Thomson Hall. For a brief moment in our Canadian winter, we heard what it’s like to savour the springtime buds of new composition – and it’s an addictive experience.