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​​Review by Paul Merkley FRSC

Toronto ON March 11th 2018

In a talk at intermission, Kulesha explained that, like other composers, he has been “working towards an all-encompassing language,” wanting to implement “the full expressive power of music.” And it appears from this piece that he is succeeding. My friend who attended this concert with me asked me about the challenging harmonic language, and, within ear and eye-shot of my student, I drew an ear drum with the tiny hairs that are activated by and vibrate with music. When notes are far enough apart, and in an agreeable harmonic relationship, I explained, the hairs vibrate in a similar way. When notes are close together or not in a harmonic relationship, it ruffles your cochlea. “Have you heard that before?” I asked my student. He said it sounded quite familiar (he is very polite). 

This is the compositional language that I and other students my age learned, at first in a strict way, and came to understand. It is challenging, it is subtle, and with experience its discourse is understood and its beauty is appreciated. A tonal piece, announcing itself to the audience, effectively says, “I hope you like me.” An atonal piece tends to say, “Thank you for coming, and try to keep up.” But with some of its jagged edges rounded off, and Kulesha’s lyrical writing, it is immediately attractive and challenging at the same time.

What a wonderful program of recent music, performed with virtuosity by the TSO under the meticulous baton of Peter Oundjian. This was the grand finale of the New CreationsFestival, generously sponsored by David Broadhurst, an invaluable opportunity for the community to hear new music presented at its very best. Tonight’s program was a fitting capstone to a long history of excellent audience experiences. One of my students found me at intermission. “Isn’t this great?” he asked, “and isn’t it great that we are here?” I told him it was indeed great.

The first work on the program was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s  Insomnia (the title came after the composition), a work in a neo-Baroque form, that of the ritornello, a repeated section alternating with new material, the difference between this piece and, say, Vivaldi’s Spring that the repeated material (the ritornello) was based on a harmonic progression, and rhythms and melodies changed. The percussion was used in a coloristic way, and there was a timpani passage that sounded like Brahms’s first symphony. The harmonic language was modern, with plenty of dissonance, careful counterpoint between the instruments, the effect often kaleidoscopic in presenting different lines against long held tones. The conducting was precise and attentive as was the playing, including that of the Wagner tubas.

Next on the program was The Double Concerto for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra by resident composer Gary Kulesha. There are very few concerti for this combination, probably because the instruments are not a good match in tone and volume. The range of the viola is a fifth lower than the violin, so by rights it ought to be one and one-half times the size of the higher instrument in every dimension. That is the case for Wagner’s violas, but not for other orchestras—the instrument would be too large to be playable. Tonight the playing of Teng Li (principal viola) was so beautifully sonorous that it matched the performance of Jonathan Crow (concertmaster), a memorable performance by both musicians and by the orchestra, which was required to play quarter tones in the slow movement. The work, a lovely concerto in a modern harmonic and contrapuntal language that also drew on tonal idioms, received a standing ovation from the full house.

Full Expressions in TSO’s New Creations Festival —A Night to Remember!

Gary Kulesha, Maestro Peter Oundjian and TSO
Photo Credit: Jag Gundu

Jonathan Crow, Teng Li, Maestro Peter Oundjian and TSO
Photo Credit: Jag Gundu

The second half of the program was a composition entitled Doctor Atomic Symphony by John Adams, derived from scenes of his celebrated opera Doctor Atomic, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to mark the seventieth anniversary of the culmination of the Manhattan Project. The extraction of music from theatrical works to make a purely instrumental suite or symphony is not new in music. Adams explained that there was so much happening on stage in the opera that he feared the audiences were not paying close attention to his music (a fear that is probably unfounded, but gave us the chance to hear this music live).

The work was impressive in its compositional content and especially in the performance of it. The opening depicted the devastation following the explosion of the bomb in Los Alamos. It seemed to have almost every known instrument including a thunder sheet. Next a trombone, sounding as if it was speaking words, depicted the general barking out orders (the libretto, by opera director Peter Sellars, was taken in part from de-classified memos from the project). The instrumental work concluded with the aria of protagonist (anti-hero?) J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the bomb, the desert test site of which he nicknamed "Trinity". The text in this part of the opera was the fervent and desperate sonnet by John Donne, “Batter my heart.” The musical and dramatic deployment of this section of the opera is based on a misreading of the sonnet, but the setting is very beautiful. I was surprised that the baritone voice of Oppenheimer was replaced not by a trombone, but by a trumpet, an instrument in a higher range, but the counterpoint held (it must have been invertible).

In film and in opera villains get the best music, and my only complaint with this work is that it makes one want to sign on to a nuclear arms program rather than the dread the consequences. Was there any fault to be found with this program or the performance? Absolutely none. My only other comments are bravo and thank you to the conductor, orchestra, and patron. I hope we will continue to hear exciting new repertoire like this as the TSO changes its practice from placing recent music in a separate series to integrating it into programs in the main series. What a memorable evening, and isn’t great that we were there!

​Next up for the TSO is Jaws in Concert with guest conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos at 7:30pm on March 21st, 22nd and 23rd in Roy Thomson Hall.

Maestro Peter Oundjian conducts Doctor Atomic
Photo Credit: Jag Gundu