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Andrew Norman on stage with Esprit Orchestra and Alex Pauk (conductor) taking a bow after the Canadian premiere of his piece, Play.

Jasmine Pauk

Group
Esprit Orchestra
Conductor
Alex Pauk
Venue
Koerner Hall
City
Toronto
Date
Sunday, November 15, 2015

For many decades, "new" classical music has been trying to crawl out from the austere, cold ghetto it found itself in after the experiments of the 1950s and 60s turned into calcified musical dogma. Since the eighties, composers around the world have been turning out works of humour, accessible melodies and form – still modern and unconventional, but

trying to meet mainstream classical audiences halfway. By and large, the audiences haven't been buying.

However, Sunday night's Esprit Orchestra concert gives one hope that maybe the day is coming when "new" music is simply music that happens to be recently composed. Three remarkable works, by composers in their 30s, 40s and 70s, provided excitement, unpredictability, charm and depth, especially as expertly played by Alex Pauk and his band. If this is new music, bring it on.

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Of the three works on the program, Tevot, by Thomas Adès (born in 1971), was perhaps the most Romantic in feeling, if not in musical technique. Tevot means a musical bar in Hebrew; it also is cognate with the word that represents Noah's ark, and the vessel in which Moses was placed so the Pharaoh's daughter could find him.

Working back from its frank major-key ending to its eerie, string opening – with the violins all playing harmonics – Adès hinted at, as only music can do, visions of angels, gods, heavenly scenes and earthly horrors in his 30-minute symphony in all but name. Adès burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old wunderkind 25 years ago. While he still veers toward a bit of musical display for its own sake, now, as an older composer, that display is tamed by a desire to make a musical point.

Canadian John Rea was the grand old man of Sunday's concert, born in 1944, but his Zephyr Returns, originally commissioned by Esprit in 1994, still seems fresh and innovative. Breezes of all sorts swept through Rea's piece, counterpointed with snatches of Monteverdi, Mozart and the entire Western tradition. If there's one feature that encapsulates the "new" in new music, it's that it has come to terms with all of music history, unafraid to quote previous music or styles, confident in its ability to be original and part of a tradition at the same time.

In some ways, that was most true of the youngest piece on the program, written by the youngest composer. Andrew Norman is just 36, and his Play was written just last year. Since its premiere, it's caused quite a sensation.

At 45 minutes, in three sections, Play is ambitious, carnival-like, virtuosic at one moment while almost completely silent the next. In essence, Play is a postmodernist musical dream whose theme is the making of music itself, and in particular the making of music by an orchestra.

Everything an orchestra can do is analyzed, scrutinized and celebrated in Play. The conductor freezes in place at one moment, as do the musicians, mid-bow. The basses wildly move their fingers over their instrument, but make no sound. Cacophonous moments of wild scale passages (the basic scale features prominently in this work) alternate with single notes played by lone, quiet instrumentalists. A second violin plucks a single string out of the middle of musical nowhere. It's answered by a lone, plaintive oboe, then a bass. The effect of the entire work is encyclopedic and kaleidoscopic – everything that can happen in an orchestra does.

Throughout the evening, a concentrated Pauk, beating time to save his life for these immensely complex scores, nonetheless coaxed amazingly virtuosic performances from his orchestra. It's been noted before, but worth noting again – the general level of playing you hear around town these days in the classical world, just about wherever you go, is stunning. If you want something to make you feel bullish about the future of that music, rather than routinely pessimistic, it's the astonishing quality of players that are drawn to the form.

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Esprit showed on Sunday that the composition of today's composers matches the virtuosity and excellence of those young players perfectly. Maybe that golden day when new classical music ceases to need to apologize is close upon us.

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