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60-Minute Workout

Toca Loca

At the Music Gallery

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in Toronto on Sunday

My rough Spanish tells me that Toca Loca means "play crazy." That seems a good description of the way Toronto's Toca Loca ensemble attacked a boffo program of contemporary music at the Music Gallery Sunday.

Toca Loca are a trio (pianists Gregory Oh and Simon Docking, and percussionist Aiyun Huang) who clearly believe that contemporary music should grab the listener as much as any other kind. With a posse of like-minded friends, they put on a passionate, disciplined performance that at times rocked harder than many shows I've heard in clubs.

In the opening piece, Jerome Kitzke's Sunflower Sutra, Oh chanted, sang and shouted a poem by Allen Ginsberg while playing a vigorous, gestural score laced with imitations of locomotives and postwar piano jazz. The high energy typical of Ginsberg's own readings was still there, minus the monotony, as Kitzke and Oh exposed the physical and dramatic shape of the verse. Ginsberg's twin metaphors of mortality (trains that come and go, flowers that bloom and fade) seemed to take on new colour and majesty, culminating in a contemplative setting of the beatific conclusion: "We're all beautiful sunflowers inside." My only quibble about Kitzke's moving work was that it seemed not to know when its own journey was over, offering us several plausible endings one after another.

At the other end of the show, Frederic Rzewski's Bring Them Home! expanded an old Irish protest song into a series of variations for two pianists and two percussionists that often shifted from miniature to epic scale in a moment. Rzewski excels at expressing a Victorian taste for the monumental with a modernist's need for clarity about essentials. Bring Them Home! made this seemingly contradictory fusion feel like a normal form of address. At times, the music billowed up so hugely as to imply that this was an arrangement of some larger, as-yet-unheard version of the same piece.

In between, Toca Loca performed two premieres, plus a quartet of fleet piano Improvements by Daniel Koontz, played with apparently effortless virtuosity by Docking. Erik Ross's Dark set a dozen lines by Pat Lowther with a gathering of strings, piano, percussion and voices (soprano Vilma Vitols and mezzo-soprano Marion Newman) that felt like a musician's close reading through his own medium of a richly evocative text. Ross's use of near dissonances to extract extra colour from his small ensemble was especially effective in the hushed closing chords.

Juliet Kiri Palmer's W Is For started with a recollection of Palmer's experience of Maori action songs in her school in New Zealand, and a list of words related to Maori terms for "container" and "ignorance." This promising ground produced a work that I found puzzlingly opaque. Palmer set the word-list as a series of drones and incantations, above an instrumental score that made its sparse instrumentation feel frustratingly thick and balky. The voices passed into slippery counterpoint for an endless final warning against forgetfulness, as I wondered what it was exactly that this talented composer was trying to help us remember.

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The show opened with a set by the Remainders, a comedy duo (Katie Crown and Ryan Hays) who combined the cheesy charm of a pair of morning-radio hosts with the dive-bombing sensibility of Lenny Bruce. They sang satiric songs in a style reminiscent of Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds, and did cornball comedic routines that usually ended up bowling you over from behind. My favourite bit was a dialogue for two marshmallows stuck in a plastic bag, performed while the pair wore pillow cases on their heads. Way to play crazy, guys.

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