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Odditorium offers the perfect reminder of Canadian R. Murray Schafer’s achievements

R. Murray Schafer’s Odditorium is the latest production of Toronto’s Soundstreams, one of the consistently most innovative presenters in the city’s new music community.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Crow’s Nest Theatre

R. Murray Schafer's Odditorium is the latest production of Toronto's Soundstreams, one of the consistently most innovative presenters in the city's new music community. But the oddest thing about Odditorium may be the fact that it was presented at all in 2017. (Okay, soprano Carla Huhtanen does sing an aria with her head sticking out of table, you don't see that every day.) Odditorium is a collection of four excerpts taken from Schafer's famous music-theatre series, Patria Cycle, which at full length would run for days – Patria 6, Ra, is 18 hours long by itself. What Soundstreams artistic director Lawrence Cherney and creative consultant Chris Abraham thought was that these excerpts, run together and dramatized with the addition of two dancers, might make a successful event all by themselves. The result was an evening of fine performances, but one that felt a bit dated and somewhat oppressive.

Patria was very much a project very much of the avant-garde 1980s, with its overt theatricality, enormous scale and wide-ranging non-Western spirituality. The youngest piece on Thursday's program, Tantrika, is over 30 years old now; the oldest was written 40 years ago. Some of the edge of Schafer's immensely original musical mind has been softened by the sheer passage of time, and Odditorium sometimes felt like a Greatest Hits concert.

Schafer is our Wagner, in more ways than one. Even in excerpted form, it is clear that Schafer's main musical material is time itself, and the conscious manipulation of duration and timbre to produce heightened emotional effects. What this meant, especially in the two middle portions, both sung exquisitely by mezzo Andrea Ludwig, was that lengthy periods of time were spent in each piece to build to emotionally shattering moments of musical revelation, only to subside again into calmer and more placid musical waters. Wagner used exactly the same technique for precisely the same musical results.

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And Schafer's omni-spirtuality, so prominent in Patria, with its Egyptian, Persian and Indian texts, is also somewhat reminiscent of the obsession with the transcendent that is in the DNA of Wagner's music, whether the transcendence of love in Tristan, or the questionable transcendence of Christianity in Parsifal. In the excerpts presented in Odditorium, the emphasis on sexual transcendence was much more overt, especially in Tantrika, where the two dancers presented a visual transformation of the sexual tension and release encapsulated in the score. But even in La Testa d'Adriane, the section from Patria 3 with the soprano's decapitated head singing by itself, sexual tension is never far from the surface.

If there were questions one might ask about the compositions in Odditorium, none were about the performances. Every single person onstage was powerful and engaging. Carla Huhtanen's Ariadne was by turns childish, hysterical, mournful, seductive and altogether believable. Andrea Ludwig's two performances, one right after the other, in Tantrika and Amente-Nufe, were a tremendous tour de force of powerful vocalization, beautiful singing and expressive acting. The two dancers – Andrea Nann and Brendan Wyatt – were sinuous, sensual, and athletic by turns, adding considerable power to Schafer's music. Joe Macerollo's accordion was a perfect foil to Huhtanen's head, and Ryan Scott and Daniel Morphy provided scintillating percussion in the two middle works, manipulating gongs, bells, mallet instruments, chimes and many other instruments with commitment and skill.

And then there was Judy Loman and her harp, playing one of Schafer's best-known standalone compositions, The Crown of Ariadne, a piece that was written for her in 1979. Loman was ageless at her instrument, tuning and retuning it as she went (as instructed in the score), playing an array of percussion instruments as well as her harp, and throwing herself into the performance with all the verve and energy of ... well, of Judy Loman.

In this sesquicentennial year, when we are considering our cultural past, perhaps an evening of Schafer is a perfect reminder of the achievements of one of our more aggressive, confident, and iconoclastic creative spirits. In a few days, the Toronto Symphony's New Creation Festival will highlight some of the work of our more contemporary composers. The two series of concerts, Schafer's Odditorium and the New Creations Festival make an appealing pair of cultural markers for this commemorative year.

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