New Music Band Esprit Shows Its Singular Palette

Composer-conductor Alex Pauk is founder and music director of  Toronto-based Esprit Orchestra, which specializes in new music.(Photo by Bo Huang)
Composer-conductor Alex Pauk is founder and music director of Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra, which focuses on new music.
(Esprit Orchestra photos by Bo Huang Photography)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — There aren’t many orchestras in North America with an exclusive commitment to new music. But Toronto has one — Esprit Orchestra — led by the conductor-composer Alex Pauk.

Thomas Adès  (Mausiko Tsusuki)
Thomas Adès (Mausiko Tsusuki)

Since creating the  approximately 60-member orchestra in 1983, Pauk has focused on championing recent music by living composers. He has chosen his repertoire from around the world — with an emphasis on Canadian works — and has worn his modernist allegiances on his sleeve. The works Pauk programs may be stridently dissonant or texturally complex, and they’re often brightly colorful in their orchestration. This is the kind of music he likes, and he’s built up an audience in Toronto for what he has to offer.

Most of the works on Esprit’s Oct. 16 concert, at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, were consistent with Pauk’s established modus operandi. Polaris, by British composer Thomas Adès, opened the program, and the second half was devoted to two Canadian composers, Paul Frehner and Chris Paul Harman. However, there was one notable exception on the playbill. Charles Ives wrote Central Park in the Dark way back in 1906, and it may have been the oldest work the Esprit Orchestra has ever performed.

Polaris was a bold beginning to the concert. Composed in 2010, the piece is a musical portrait of a night sky — a swirling kaleidoscope of sound from the strings, woodwinds, and percussion, as the brass (representing the North Star) soar above in long lines. Following the composer’s instructions, Pauk positioned brass players around the hall. However, such prominent positioning only encouraged them to overwhelm the rest of the orchestra. Opportunities for shaping the piece were lost in the blare, and Polaris sounded static and directionless.

Happily, the Ives received a much more refined presentation. Indeed, in Pauk’s hands, the piece was all about subtle gradations in dynamics and texture. The strings were a suitably sultry and languid background to the quotation from the 1899 hit song “Hello! Ma Baby,” and the piece faded away under a veil of mystery.

Paul Frehner, composer of 'Phantom Suns'
Paul Frehner, composer of ‘Phantom Suns’ (Soundstreams)

Both the Canadian composers on the program are connected with Montreal: Frehner was born there (he now teaches at Western University in London, Ontario), and Harman (originally from Toronto) teaches at Montreal’s McGill University. For this program, both were heard in recent works that were commissioned and previously premiered by Esprit.

Paul Frehner’s Phantom Suns, written just two years ago, was in some ways similar to Polaris. Like Adès’ work, Frehner’s was inspired by the heavens: specifically, an atmospheric condition that gives the illusion of multiple suns in the sky. Also like the Adès, Phantom Suns is full of busy lines woven into a large musical tapestry. However, unlike Polaris, there’s a compelling narrative quality to Frehner’s composition, making it a more engaging piece. Percussion was effectively used for structural purposes, there were sharp changes in dynamics, and furious outbursts were contrasted with moments of eerie suspension.

Coyote Soul, from 2011, was Chris Paul Harman’s contribution to the program — and the title is an anagram of Burt Bacharach’s 1963 song “Close to You.” In his notes, Harman called his composition a “recontextualization” of the song (made famous by the Carpenters). And indeed it was. The tune emerged from an amorphous, pan-diatonic wash of orchestral color in an arresting way — something like a hippie wandering into a state dinner. It was amusing, but if it was meant to be more than merely amusing, the piece fell short.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of two books: Mendelssohn and Victorian England, and Remembering Glenn Gould.

Phantom suns (also known as sundogs) in Fargo, North Dakota. (Gopherboy 6956 via Wiki)
Paul Frehner’s ‘Phantom Suns’ was inspired by luminous halo illusions called ‘sundogs,’ seen here in Fargo, N.D.
(Wiki Commons image by Gopherboy 6956.)