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Ann Southam, composer. March 10, 1997.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail

The wheels of official recognition can turn slowly. Ann Southam didn't live long enough to receive her Order of Canada when the medals for 2010 came out at Rideau Hall earlier this month, but she knew she had been honoured: The veteran composer got the news of her investiture in June, 2010, five months before she died at age 73.

Many of her Toronto colleagues have lined up tributes to her large and influential body of work. One of the first off the mark was New Music Concerts, which began its first show of the season with a performance of Southam's Quintet for Piano and Strings, an NMC commission from 1986 that was played this time by pianist Gregory Oh and the Accordes String Quartet.

It was a big piece that began modestly, with a simple sunlit progression played several times on the piano. The strings took up an overlapping melodic conversation that was both reflective and humane, in the space left for each voice to have its say. There were several episodes of a fierce processive music for the whole quintet, punctuated by huge two-handed chords on the piano. These had an annunciatory effect, and harked back to the heroic era of Romantic piano music, for which Southam retained affection even after she became a committed serialist. The serial apparatus of this piece was cunningly concealed – the piece just seemed to follow its own compelling emotional logic, culminating in a return to the opening chords, by then transformed by all that had happened.

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The other standout piece on this program, for me, was Hope Lee's Secret of the Seven Stars, a new commissioned work for small string orchestra, accordion (Joseph Macerollo) and solo percussion (Ryan Scott). This ambitious work had a persistently high centre of gravity – no surprise, perhaps, given the title. It sifted its opening tutti chords till only the highest notes remained, testing them as a position of repose and also of sustained tension. It was as if Lee were measuring the melodic value of the bright upper tones we hear but don't perceive in every instrumental note, while giving this analytic process an emotional urgency.

Lee's distinctive scoring was beautifully transparent, even when thick with independent parts. This clarity, with the silvery upper tones that dominated the piece, gave the music a magical glow from start to finish. The final sound was a gleaming accord with percussion that took a long time to fade away completely. I would have been game to hear the piece again immediately, especially with the fine attention paid by conductor Robert Aitken and the 15 members of his ensemble.

Andrew Staniland's Pentagrams put Macerollo and the equally adept Ina Henning in the spotlight, for what felt like five etudes in cool things two accordions can do. There were lots of barking bellows attacks, drones, seething pneumatic effects and demonstrations of the instruments' extremes of tone. It looked like fun to play, and was well-made, but didn't stick with me long after it was done. Ditto Nicolaus A. Huber's Auf Flugeln der Harfe for solo accordion (Henning), which made much of the sparse poetry of single sustained notes, and featured a long noteless solo for bellows that may have resembled what Jonah heard inside the whale.

Alice Ping Yee Ho's Ballade for an Ancient Warrior turned its mixed ensemble into a rugged percussive machine for much of the time, while soprano Xin Wang uttered high cries and wails, supposedly in the heat of battle. Some gamelan percussion instruments (played by Scott, in a soloist's role) gave a pungent intonation to a pentatonic midsection that to my ear had a stereotypical Chinatown flavour. The final section was of the same rough cloth as the first part, and seemed designed mainly to achieve a walloping finish.

This concert was recorded for later broadcast on CBC Radio 2's The Signal.

New Music Concerts

  • At Glenn Gould Studio
  • In Toronto on Sunday

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