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Music Esprit Orchestra cunningly channels The Carpenters

The Esprit Orchestra

Bo Huang

Esprit Orchestra Koerner Hall in Toronto on Sunday

(They Long To Be) Close to You was a huge hit for the Carpenters in 1970. After that, it was covered by Homer Simpson and many others, until achieving its apotheosis on Sunday in a new orchestral piece by Chris Paul Harman, called Coyote Soul.

Harman is a Montreal-based composer whose previous works for the Esprit Orchestra include two creative demolitions of Lutheran chorale tunes. His cunning orchestral remix of elements from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song should cement his standing as the most entertaining smarty-pants in Canadian contemporary music.

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The piece's eight short sections (each named with a word from David's lyrics) teased and tumbled Harman's source without ever stating it directly. A solo recorder began the piece with a tune as bare as plainchant, which acquired a lilting rhythm in the next section and a brassy fanfare in the one after that. Striking combinations arose from instruments usual and unusual, including lots of harp, resonant percussion and a detuned piano. Later episodes included a wonderfully spooky section for winds, violins and percussion, and a seething, swelling tutti that began with a jagged feeling and slimmed down in preparation for the coda: a bent but respectful arrangement of most of Bacharach's tune.

Sofia Gubaidulina's Offertorium (1980/82) made more grandiose work of its transformations of the theme from Bach's The Musical Offering, from the hocket-like opening statement through some amazingly varied and memorable variations. My favourites included a swirling mosquito chorus for upper strings and triangle, the sombre late chorale that rose up from the lower strings through the whole orchestra and the numerous virtuoso cadenzas played by soloist Marie Bérard, a violinist of great skill and character who performed this piece like the barn-burning concerto it is.

Denis Gougeon's Phénix (2010) began with glowing yet tentative opening chords that acquired a running pulse on timpani and a sustained tune-like series of pitches in high winds and brass. It felt like a species of monody decked out with luxurious ornament, becoming aqueous in its late stages before clarifying into a minimalist pattern of scales.

Alex Pauk's Portals of Intent (1994) proceeded from a river-like chordal flow into a series of portentous incidents related to his reading of the works of Carlos Castaneda. The piece was full of drama and colour, and shifts of tone from an impressionistic style to something more rugged or even brutal, but for me its initial effectiveness waned as it went along. It felt overwritten, as if Pauk were trying to top himself on every page.

The remaining work, for strings alone, was Nick Storring's remember how we used to…? (2004). This passed in a series of exhalations of varying texture: glassy and long-bowed, dry and plucked, fluttering with tremolo. A fragment of harmonized tune appeared, then was dropped, then appeared again, like the recollection of a film once seen and only half-remembered. It was a good piece, from a young composer who deserved the $5,000 Canadian Music Centre Emerging Toronto Composer Award he received after intermission, if not CMC director Elisabeth Bihl's condescending remark that the money would help him "experiment before doing the real work of composing."

The Esprit Orchestra and conductor Pauk did a fine job with all this music, which would tax the skills of any standing orchestra, let alone one that convenes for only a handful of concerts a year. The band sounds 1,000 per cent better in Koerner Hall, which made me realize the damage inflicted on them by the dry, choking acoustics of their former digs at the Jane Mallett Theatre, a decent space for chamber music but an ungenerous one for orchestras.

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