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Esprit Orchestra: A 30-year-old experiment in the new pays off

Esprit Orchestra
Alex Pauk
The Tuning of the World
Koerner Hall
Sunday, October 14, 2012

Thirty years ago, Canadian composer and conductor Alex Pauk had a dream. He decided he would create a brand-new Canadian orchestra – no mean feat in itself. But this one would perform only new, challenging Canadian music, exhuming existing pieces, commissioning new ones. Esprit Orchestra was born. Chances of success? Well, about 3 per cent of the population of most Western democracies is into classical music, and about 3 per cent of that group is into new music. You do the math.

On Sunday night, Alex Pauk, with a little less hair but no less determination, defied the math as he stood in front of his orchestra at the beginning of its 30th-anniversary season. Clearly moved, Pauk presided over a first-rate concert before an audience that included some who had been at his inaugural outing, but as many who weren't even born when that took place. And Sunday's concert confirmed Pauk's confidence in his orchestra and in the material he's been presenting for three decades.

In the end, a concert of new music, like that of any other music, must be judged by basic criteria: Does the music engage; is it well-performed; has an artistic connection between composer, performer and audience been made? Judgments are subjective, especially with material that is new, but, by and large, the answer to all these questions on Sunday evening was yes.

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Of course, the concert's several works varied in their impact. John Rea's Ikaros agog … Daidalos on edge, the story of the boy who flew too close to the sun, had the added benefit of being performed the same day Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a capsule and free-fell 38 kilometres to earth. Rea, a long-time Esprit associate, has long mastered the craft of modern orchestral writing, and the swoops and glides, real and imagined, of Icarus and his doomed journey were clearly in evidence. Hearing structure in new music is not always easy (no melodies or themes or movement breaks to guide you), but Rea's orchestral fantasia made strong musical sense.

R. Murray Schafer's Wolf Returns, a creature of an altogether different colour, also made sense. Schafer's latest work combines the chants he and his volunteer choristers perform in the wilds of Haliburton, Ont., with a modern orchestral score. But if Schafer was trying to create a sense of deep contrast between indoors and outdoors, the sophisticated and the primitive, what we heard was actually a careful balance and blending of the two. For all his anti-modern spirit, Schafer's musical language is influenced (by his own admission) by the work of the very urban French composers of the early 20th century, Les Six. His orchestral writing has a strong taste of the French boulevard at times, and his "wolf chants" often fit remarkably well into this texture. This was perhaps his intention all along.

But it was in the second half of the program that Esprit's "esprit" really came alive. Composer Alexina Louie was at work on a piece for string orchestra when she heard the news of Glenn Gould's death in 1982. Moved by her response, her piece metamorphosed into a tribute to Gould – O Magnum Mysterium: In Memoriam Glenn Gould, which deftly interweaves bits and pieces of Bach into a haunting texture of string glissandi and chattering, whispered, broken fragments of song. Under Pauk's direction, Louie's piece, which has become something of a Canadian classic, was given as beautiful and moving a reading as ever I've heard.

This is not just an orchestra that provides an important service to Canadian music, but an orchestra that plays extremely well – as was demonstrated in the concert's finale, Colin McPhee's Tabuh-tabuhan, written in 1936. McPhee was a fascinating Canadian artist who spent some time in Bali, and the sound of the Balinese gamelan – that astonishing orchestra of gongs and bells – was laced throughout his work. Aided by its five percussionists and two pianists, Pauk and Esprit tore into McPhee's joyous evocation of a more primitive world and performed the work with style and panache, aided by the warm, welcoming acoustics of Koerner Hall.

Some gambles work – some don't. Sunday night's concert demonstrated that the Esprit Orchestra gamble has definitely paid off 30 years later, and Canadian music is all the better for it.

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