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Esprit Orchestra meets Koerner Hall - glorious

Esprit Orchestra

  • At Koerner Hall
  • in Toronto on Sunday

Toronto's Esprit Orchestra took a chance on Sunday night by decamping from their usual digs at the St. Lawrence Centre for Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music. The new hall is larger and more expensive to rent, but the gamble was rewarded with a near-capacity audience.

What Esprit - Canada's only orchestra dedicated to contemporary music - brought to the stage on this occasion didn't disappoint. Music director Alex Pauk led a varied program, beginning with two works from the 1960s: Green (November Steps II) by Toru Takemitsu and Atmosphères by Gyorgi Ligeti.

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Both were well shaped by Pauk, who both emphasized and controlled the large-scale sound masses that make up these pieces. Especially in the Ligeti (made famous by Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey ), the orchestra responded with playing that was rich, nuanced and (I dare say) historically authentic. The stark abstractions of modernism are no longer as modern as they once were, but these two compositions have value beyond the shock of the new.

The program took a postmodern turn with Take the Dog Sled , by Canadian composer Alexina Louie. Originally composed for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra's 2009 northern tour, the piece has been played by the MSO in several communities in Nunavik (Northern Quebec), as well as Montreal and Los Angeles. Esprit's performance of Take the Dog Sled was the work's Toronto premiere.

Central to the performance were a pair of Inuit throat singers: Evie Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik, from Nunavik. Indeed, the piece would be unperformable without singers specially trained in the guttural yet otherworldly vocal technique unique to the Arctic. Mark and Sivuarapik are acknowledged masters of this art and have given performances around the world.

As an outsider's view of the Arctic, Take the Dog Sled differs markedly from many artistic portrayals of Canada's Far North. Rather than emphasizing the grandness or barrenness of the landscape, Louie's piece - in eight short movements, and scored for just seven instrumentalists (violin, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, bass and percussion) plus two singers - is intimate and on a human scale. In her pre-concert remarks, Louie explained that she was attempting to evoke the Inuit people in her music - with all due respect and sensitivity, of course. (No Canadian artist wants to stand accused of "cultural appropriation.") Technically speaking, Louie's greatest challenge was to bring throat singing into the sound world of classical music. To this end, her instrumental writing often imitated the machine-like regularity of her vocalists' rhythms. As well, Louie's penchant for unusual musical timbres (including overblown bottles and a bowed saw) served as a kind of bridge between the West and the Arctic. The result was a fascinating and elegantly crafted composition that hung together against all odds.

There was a touch of unintended irony in the choice of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer to conclude the program. Canada's foremost composer is well known for his political incorrectness: In his younger days, he brashly compared Inuit vocal technique to "Sir Winston Churchill clearing his throat." Yet he's deeply concerned about the Arctic - and his North/White, for Snowmobile and Orchestra was written for the National Youth Orchestra in 1973 as a protest against environmental degradation.

In the clear acoustics of Koerner Hall, North/White made a glorious racket, as percussionists did violence to a wide variety of instruments, above the wail of screeching strings and punchy interjections from the winds. At the climax of the piece, a snowmobile roared furiously. In fact, the onstage machine (a Yamaha Phazer 500) was just a visual prop, and its engine noise was prerecorded. Nevertheless, the desired effect was achieved.

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