Review: Prior conducts premiere of Glass and other new compositions

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“Our living composers are the torchbearers of the future,” said conductor Alexander Prior during a scintillating concert at Winspear on Friday evening.

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There was no coughing or rustling all evening – instead, sustained attention and considerable enthusiasm, showing that there really is a demand for this kind of new and recent music.

Some had come out of curiosity. Some had come because they knew it was probably their only chance to hear a live symphony by Soviet composer Galina Ustvolskaya. Some had come to listen to new music from four truly talented Canadian composers.

It was a cornucopia of a concert, covering the full range of extreme emotions, and including beautiful solos. Timpani Barry Nemish filled the hall with a virtuoso solo performance of Peter Eötvös’ Thunder for Bass Pedal Timpani. Megan Evans showed what an excellent horn player she is — what a beautiful lyrical tone — in Nielsen’s Canto serioso for French horn and piano, here sympathetically orchestrated by Prior himself, with some bright Nielsen touches.

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Barry Nemish delivered a timpani solo with ESO while Alex Prior conducted on Friday night.
Barry Nemish delivered a timpani solo with ESO while Alex Prior conducted on Friday night. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz /Provided

Solo violinists Ewald Cheung and Yue Deng floated above the orchestra in Reich’s poetic duet for two solo violins and string orchestra, as if the minimalist composer was inspired by Vivaldi’s blend of soloists and orchestra.

Only Philip Glass’ Prelude and Dance from his opera Akhnaton, which opened the concert, was oddly muted, apart from DT Baker’s effective narration. Surprisingly, this was ESO’s first time playing Glass; it can be notoriously difficult music to play, but it required a wider dynamic range.

Nicole Lizée’s three-minute Zeiss After Dark, the only work from the concert that ESO had performed before, dazzled, though I’m not as convinced as Prior that it’s more than an occasional piece.

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The concert, however, was dominated by three works by three female composers, music of such power and effect that it seemed to cover all the zeitgeist of our troubled times.

The first was A Child’s Dream of Toys by Edmonton-born Vivian Fung. His music has truly matured into a powerful, individual idiom over the past few years, and this 11-minute work is an intense virtuoso masterpiece for orchestra. As its title might suggest, there’s the messy frenetic energy of a small child, dazzling in its bright colors and charged orchestral textures.

In the middle, this energy seems to drain almost completely, as if the child had fallen asleep, with sounds resembling the snoring of double basses and brass. A few whistles wake everyone up, but things stay magical, until the opening vibe returns.

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The music really penetrates the cluttered world of dreams and toys. I remembered Where the Wild Things Are, but there’s nothing sentimental or pseudo-romantic about it. He delights in bright and frank colors, joyful and honest. It is indeed the music of our time.

Opposite, but complementing it so well, is the premiere of a new work by fellow Edmonton-born composer, Alissa Cheung. Impressions is a haunting, magical, fascinating, slow combination of silent orchestral textures that build almost imperceptibly to a conclusion of tremendous emotional power.

It is built on the simplest materials, including a three-note chorale-like figure in the brass. It could be a seascape – certainly it feels very Nordic with its notes of whale cries and seabird calls deep in the orchestral textures at the opening. Finally, at the end, the three-note brass figure is heard again, and with all instruments silent, the entire orchestra hums the three notes. It is an extraordinarily moving moment.

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Everything that happens in the piece, even if it’s not planned, seems to happen effortlessly when it should – the hallmark of the best songwriters. Surprisingly, given his orchestral mastery, this is Cheung’s first orchestral piece.

Finally came Ustvolskaya’s 13-minute Symphony No. 5 for five musicians and a narrator, here Prior dramatically reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Old Church Slavonic. It is one of the most terrifying pieces of music ever written, relentless in its musical dissection of the horrors of the world. It’s as if Stravinsky’s Story of a Soldier had turned into a post-holocaust fatality where death knocks at the door. Indeed, Death seems to be doing just that in the constant gruesome banging of hard mallets on a specially constructed wooden box. A wonderful and heartbreaking performance from everyone.

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These three plays seemed to encompass our times: sparkling but harsh and complex joy among the Fung, mediation and peace and perhaps a sense of possible despair among the Cheung, the horror that seems to reflect the terrible events in Ukraine in the Ustvolskaya. Together they seemed to echo that classic Greek idea of ​​the wisdom of women’s ages: the young woman to Cheung, the mother to Fung, the old grandmother to Ustvolskaya.

Luckily, the ESO records the Cheung in May. But it’s a concert that should have been broadcast nationally, to show what torches carry our extraordinary new generation of Canadian composers, and the orchestral forces that ignite them.

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Edmonton Symphony Orchestra ‘Glass’ Concert

Driver: Alexander Prior

Soloists: Ewald Cheung, Yue Deng, Megan Evans and Barry Nemish

Or: Winspear Center

When: April 29

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About Madeline J. Carter

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