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music: concert review

The Array Ensemble

Four Seasons One Tree

  • Arraymusic
  • At the Music Gallery in Toronto on Sunday

The first decade of this century ended before we'd even agreed what to call it. Arraymusic looked back recently at the zero years and called them productive, at least in terms of pieces written for the Toronto-based contemporary music ensemble.

On Sunday, Array performed and recorded five of those commissioned works, all written for violin, clarinets, trumpet, double bass, piano and percussion. The five Canadian composers are in most ways as distinct from each other as my fingerprints are from yours, yet their works seemed to share certain principles of taste or procedure.

All were more than a bit suspicious of the notion that a piece of music should be a journey-like progress with a moment of climax or catharsis along the way. These composers seemed more attached to Michael Snow's idea that art is a game in which you make up the rules and change them whenever you start losing.

As in most good games, the items in play during these pieces were quite limited. Scott Edward Godin's soccer: in memoriam Hugh Kenner made striking good sport with just three chords, all of them tethered from a high B-flat that recurred like a contagious idée fixe. The piece mostly moved along in a stealthy watchful andante, with lots of quiet atmospheric percussion, and occasional flares of brilliant sound from clarinet (played by Colleen Cook) and muted trumpet (Anita McAlister).

In Linda Catlin Smith's Stare at the River, those instruments (plus Rebecca van der Post's violin) gently contested a cluster of pitches in a similar range. Stephen Clarke's piano translated that manoeuvre into crowded chordal clusters that invited the ear to listen for buried melodies, akin to the ones arising in the other instruments.

Both of these pieces, and the ones that followed, treated their materials like the faces of a Rubik's cube, though the object wasn't to get to a solution but to explore and enjoy colours and combinations as they arose. Whatever the feeling in the music, details of scoring were never selected casually.

Rodney Sharman's Four Seasons One Tree presented four settings of a single wide-spaced melody, with a different solo voice each time and an ever-changing environment of background colours. Percussion (played by Rick Sacks and Blair Mackay) really came into its own, with glimmering beautiful sounds from mallet instruments as the tune mutated from one setting to the next. I especially like a recurrent guttural string effect during van der Post's solo, like someone clearing her throat while speaking. Calum MacLeod's high final bass solo was quite touching, though it could have been better in tune.

Martin Arnold's (damper) Coaster had an engagingly intent yet loose feeling to it, as if all the musicians were working autonomously but somehow playing together. Unisons fractured into counterpoint, as the fluid beat dissembled itself around conductor Gregory Oh's clear indications of how the measures fell out. Late in the piece, a muted trumpet took up an angular beboppish tune, and the ensemble morphed into a witty if very straight simulation of a jazz quartet. The only part of this clever and diverting piece I didn't much like was the long drum solo, with too much idle brushing.

Michael Oesterle's assume sometimes ran its game elements through a lot of different highly coloured situations, though I was continually distracted by the spoken-word tape, which kept repeating the same thought about non-narrative composition. Two or three plays would have been fine for me. I'll have to wait for the recording to get a better sense of this otherwise attractive piece.