Thanks to the Luminato Festival, Toronto audiences on Sunday night got a chance to experience one of the most interesting Canadian symphonic endeavours of the past four years, the National Arts Centre's Orchestra presentation of their four-part musical/multimedia extravaganza, Life Reflected. And although the results were far from perfect, and often uneven, the lasting impression of the evening was the overpowering excitement of the original, the new. Life Reflected reminded us that when we try new things, art regains its primal power.
Robert Schumann famously said of Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 that the composer had "merely bound together four of his most unruly children" and there is the same element of untidiness in the four elements that make up Life Reflected. The basic idea of the piece, as refined by conductor Alexander Shelley, NAC administrator Chris Deacon and multimedia director Donna Feore, was to commission four new works from Canadian composers to honour and illuminate four Canadian women.
The four chosen – Alice Munro, the Mi'kmaq poet Rita Joe, astronaut Roberta Bondar and Amanda Todd, tragic teenage victim of cyberbullying – actually share very little in common and their musical tributes betrayed this lack of coherence. Nonetheless, each of the four movements of this Canadiana suite had affecting moments, and the very audacity of the attempt to corral together four new Canadian compositions, together with an imaginative multimedia approach to their presentation, made the evening a special occasion.
An adaptation of Alice Munro's Dear Life, written by Merilyn Simonds and beautifully read by Martha Henry, provided Zosha Di Castri an opportunity to use her musical language to supplement and complement Munro's text in the first section of Life Reflected, but it was actually Munro's sly, low-key storytelling, even in this truncated form, that carried Dear Life to a powerful conclusion. Feore's idea of using Larry Towell's simple Southwestern Ontario photographs as a visual counterpoint to the story and the music was very effective, and the use of traditional video screens and a curtain-like scrim, devised by Montreal's NORMAL for all four presentations, worked extremely well. Dear Life was a perfect, low-key, but disturbing (welcome to the world of Alice Munro) opening movement for the piece.
As is often the case in all suites, the two middle movements of Life Reflected were a little less effective, I thought.
From the day I first heard that composer Jocelyn Morlock had the task of setting Amanda's tragic tale to music, I felt for her because the story of the B.C. teen's online bullying and eventual suicide seemed so overwhelmingly heartbreaking, and it surely presented a desperate artistic challenge. Morlock notes it was in talking to Amanda's mother, Carol, that she came to realize that Amanda's tale could be a beacon of warning for so many others, and thus a positive story, and it is from this perspective that she approached her composition, but it was difficult for the tragedy of the story and the simple, harmonic message of the music to find a happy meeting place, I thought.
Nicole Lizée's portrait of Bondar made a fine choice for the minuet and trio movement of the Life Reflected symphony, full of Lizée's patented goofiness and electronic-music charm, allowing her to stop-time images of Peter Mansbridge and Knowlton Nash, compose music to the inflections of Bondar's voice, and use some neat footage of the astronaut as she prepared for, and participated in, her space voyage. In the end, however, the Bondar movement was as much about Lizée as the astronaut, although that might not be a bad thing.
Life Reflected ends with perhaps the most substantial and rewarding piece of music of the four movements, at least in a conventional sense, composer John Estacio's setting of Joe's simple poem, I Lost My Talk. A heartfelt revealing confession of the pain of residential schools, Estacio used the sentiments of the poem to compose, in essence, a ballet score, for his contribution to the evening, full of reminiscences of Britten and Stravinsky, a very Western piece of music for an essentially Indigenous theme.
However, Estacio's score was given a choregraphic treatment by Indigenous dancer and choreographer Tekaronhiahkhwa Santee Smith and filmed in Killbear Provincial Park by the divine Barbara Willis Sweete, allowing I Lost My Talk to take advantage of the most complete multimedia presentation of the four. It was also a surprising joy to see Indigenous actor Monique Mojica on stage reading Joe's poem, as well as in the film, portraying one of native spirits, in effect, calling herself forth by her speaking of the poem.
Alexander Shelley and the National Arts Centre Orchestra gave a fine performance of the four scores, if hampered somewhat by the fact they were, in essence, a movie orchestra following visual cues, so consequently a bit limited in their interpretive spontaneity.
But the evening carried all these minor negatives with it in its sweep of originality and ambition. Toronto Blue Jay Josh Donaldson famously said a couple of seasons ago that Major League Baseball wasn't the "try" league, but the "getting it done" league. In art, it's often the other way around – the attempt, the gamble, the leap into the unknown, is often the very best thing.