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Esprit Orchestra's performance is full of wonder

Krisztina Szabo

Canadian Opera Company

Esprit Orchestra

  • Teng Li, viola, and Krisztina Szabo, mezzo-soprano
  • At Koerner Hall in Toronto on Sunday

Given that it was Oscar night, Esprit Orchestra drew a decent crowd to the Koerner for a program of works from the late 20th century. The audience was rewarded in particular by a stunning performance of Alfred Schnittke's Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1985), featuring the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's superb principal violist, Teng Li.

Schnittke dispenses with the entire violin section in this massive 1985 piece. On paper, and even on recordings, that seems like a solid tactical move to ensure that the soloist isn't drowned out. In concert, the visual effect of amputation was shocking before we had heard a note, with the soloist standing on empty ground.

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Li delivered her opening solo with such nuance and beauty that you instantly cared desperately for the fate of her character. When the orchestra joined her empathetically, it was not because that has to happen in a concerto; instead, you felt, "Yes: Who would not lay down their lives for such a one?"

And the wonders just kept coming, in a performance of visceral power and wisdom. In her dissonant second solo, Li seemed to be probing her own wounds unflinchingly. Even the not-so-subtle contrasts in the furious second movement – the soloist's waltzes stomped on by orchestral "boots" and the like – she and her orchestral colleagues found complexity, making the best of duets that were far from musically ideal.

By the end of the second movement, the orchestra was spouting elements of musical grammar that have lost the thread that gives them sense – the snare drum for a non-existent march, for instance. In the slow movement that followed, Li seemed to be testing musical ground that would not hold the weight of thought. The orchestral violence that erupted in this movement was truly nightmarish; the ending – like a mumbled fragment of a mantra, repeated over and over – was devastating. Bravo to Esprit and conductor Alex Pauk as well, for this inspired performance.

In his 1994 work Zefiro torna (Zephyr returns), Montreal composer John Rea takes his inspiration from Francesco Petrarca's sonnet that begins by celebrating the gentle wind of spring. Rea invokes winds both literal and emotional, using extended techniques such as unpitched blowing through wind and brass instruments; tatters of quotation from standard repertoire (including Vivaldi and Monteverdi) get caught up in the swirl.

In pre-concert remarks, Rea described the piece as cloud- or dream-like in its organization, but because I am reading Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, about the world-changing rediscovery of Lucretius's On the Nature of Things in the Renaissance, his music seemed a wonderful expression of Lucretius's universe in constant creation in the void, the atoms of sound perpetually swirling, coalescing and dissolving.

The subtitle of Giacinto Scelsi's Ohoi (I principi creativi) explicitly invokes the metaphor or creation. Scored for 16 string players, the 1966 piece begins with a soft, glowing ball of sound that grows into a plangent, urgent wail that constantly shifts upward by microtones as soon as it seems to settle on a pitch.

Canadian composer Claude Vivier's 1981 Wo bist du Licht!, for mezzo-soprano, ensemble and tape, still startles, with shamanic percussion effects, and gritty string gestures that repeatedly rip the fabric of the music open to reveal the mystical glow of large gongs. With the magnificent mezzo Krisztina Szabo on deck, Sunday's performance could have packed a wallop. But the piece sounded woefully under-rehearsed. The volume of the taped components was so low that it could have been an archival broadcast of an historic baseball game; only when the orchestra sank out of the picture did the sweeping music-rhetoric of Martin Luther King's "Let freedom reign" speech emerge.

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There's more Vivier in Toronto on Thursday, when another great Canadian singer – expatriate soprano Barbara Hannigan – performs his Lonely Child at the opening of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's New Creations Festival. Teng Li returns to the spotlight on Saturday, when she gives the North American premiere of Peter Eotvos's Replica for Viola and Orchestra, also with the TSO (

Special to The Globe and Mail

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