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Soundstreams Canada concert celebrates the versatility of the modern flute

Soundstreams Canada
Koerner Hall
Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The flute – the reed or pipe or hollow tube across which or through which a human blows to make sound, and then music – is one of the most basic artifacts of life on this planet. Cast your gaze across cultures today, or direct it back thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years, and the flute is there. The flute is the humanizing companion of the aggressive stick Stanley Kubrick's humanoids threw into the air in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Soundstreams Canada began its 2016 season in the same vein that it concluded its last – with a highly imaginative and beguiling concert of works for flute, in all its concert glory. But actually, it wasn't the world's flute that Soundstreams celebrated on Wednesday night (maybe that will be for another concert), but the Western concert flute, an instrument that only dates back to the mid-19th century. Nonetheless, the range of music that Soundstreams and its five flutists performed – basically a century's worth, from a piece by Claude Debussy written in 1915 to a piece by Anna Hostman written for this concert – demonstrated how versatile and all-encompassing the modern flute can be when in the hands of first-rate players.

In many ways, the versatility of the flute might come as a surprise. The modern flute has one of the most homogenous sounds of any orchestral instrument, that silvery, compliant, born-to-please high register that is so common in classical music. But it is an instrument the 20th century discovered was capable of a much wider range of sounds – all you had to do was overblow the instrument (that is, blow too hard into it) to create all sorts of weird harmonics, or sing into the instrument as you played it to play two notes at the same time, or tap its keys, or expand its register. The transgressive sounds forced out of the pleasant and well-behaved flute became one of the signatures of the avant-garde of the fifties and sixties.

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That transgressive sound was first and foremost in two works on Wednesday's program, Michael Colgrass's Wild Riot of the Shaman's Dreams, performed beautifully by Marina Piccinini, and Robert Aitken's Plainsong, performed by the composer, one of the great modern flute virtuosos of all time, now in his 70s. Both pieces used the full range of the flute's "extramusical" resources to full effect. So it was doubly fascinating to hear Piccinini, after the Colgrass, join harpist Erica Goodman and TSO principal violist Teng Li (and what a gorgeous player she is) for Claude Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Debussy's sonata, written in the last year of his life, is remarkably avant-garde, not in the sonorities it demands from its instruments, but in the molecular, cell-like structure of its form. Piccinini's expressive flute demonstrated a completely different aspect of the instrument's capabilities in this superb work.

The "normal" sound of the concert flute was also key to Toru Takemitsu's Toward the Sea, composed in 1989 and performed by Aitken and Goodman, but here again the homogeneous sound of the instrument was put to a completely different use. This technique was also used in the highly engaging, hypnotic Piece in the Shape of a Square, by a very young Philip Glass, which had the riveting Claire Chase, the modern wonder of the flute, playing against a taped version of herself, as Glass investigated the kind of "phase shifting" of two lines of music we more usually associate with composers like Steve Reich. For about 20 minutes, Chase worked her way around 16 music stands in the shape of a square, each with the score of the piece on them, a masterpiece of concentration, before sauntering off into the wings of Koerner Hall, playing all the while, a modern Pied Piper.

And it was the Pied Piper story that was the inspiration for Hostman in her piece for flutist Leslie Newman and soprano Carla Huhtanen, The Pied Piper. The Hostman piece was divided into movements, and played throughout the evening (including the intermission), with Newman and especially Huhtanen making extremely beautiful sounds with their instruments, even if the overall shape of the piece was a little less clear. The concert ended (at least the official part) with a beautiful rendering of André Jolivet's piece for flute and four percussionists that allowed flutist Patrick Gallois to demonstrate yet another aspect of this instrument.

And then, as an encore, the four flutists (minus Leslie Newman) got together for a little, wonderful, 19th-century trifle that demonstrated the sheer exuberance of this often-undervalued instrument. There was Aitken playing his heart out next to Chase, 40 years' difference between them, joined by that silvery tube on their lips, cleverly exploited in a fine evening of inspired programming.

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