Orchestra Breaks Mold With Adventures Into New Worlds Of Music

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Expanding the ESO palette, Alexander Prior also conducted the Ukrainian national anthem and works by Carl Nielsen, Galina Ustvolskaya and Steve Reich. (ESO)

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra has programmed a smattering of contemporary composers, but more typically finds itself adding a date or two for an evening of John Williams. Under chief conductor Alexander Prior, a series of new music concerts has broadened the orchestra’s palette.

A November concert featured an all-Canadian, all-female roster of living composers, led by ESO assistant conductor Cosette Justo-Valdés. And a program April 29, under Prior, offered the most adventurous range of compositions I’ve ever heard the ESO do. (Prior will be leaving the orchestra in June to begin a four-year stint as general music director of Theater Erfurt in Germany, opening with a Wagner Ring Cycle.) 

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra chief conductor Alexander Prior has broadened the orchestra’s palette with adventuresome new music. (Eric Kozakiewicz)

Prior introduced the program by noting that its overarching energy reflected various manifestations of what he called “relentlessness.” Most of the pieces had never been heard in Edmonton. One was a new commission from Edmonton-born composer Alissa Cheung. Her Impressions showed an approach to what’s loosely called minimalism.

Alissa Cheung, composer of ‘Impressions.’

Cheung’s eight-minute piece featured an unusual eerie, human-like crying effect. The general feel was dark and refined, a brooding that never sounded ponderous. The concert opened with two excerpts from Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten, and the orchestra sustained the repetitive unfolding of the opera’s prelude and a dance with steady attention to the music’s detail.

By contrast, Cheung’s treatment of a single idea in a patient, unaffected compositional focus more resembled the style of Reich’s five-minute piece Duet, for two violins and small string orchestra, which was played exquisitely by orchestra members Ewald Cheung and Yue Deng.

Composer Vivian Fung (Genevieve Caron)

In November, the ESO presented a piece by Edmonton-born, San Francisco-based composer Vivian Fung, whose voice is impossible to pigeonhole. Her Baroque Melting gave a wonky twist to standard 18th-century musical conventions. A Child’s Dream of Toys, played on the April 29 concert, took all the potential for raucous brass and emphatic percussion to the hilt. If it wasn’t complex art, most of it might just be called interestingly noisy.

Inspired by the boyish energy of her two young sons, A Child’s Dream captures sonic chaos but also falls into moments of repose, respites perhaps from the rambunctious impulses of children at play. The orchestra performed this work with a headlong commitment to its vitality, pulling some audience members to the edge of their seats for a well-warranted standing ovation.

The second half opened with a novel selection of solo music played by the ESO’s timpanist of 48 years, Barry Nemish. Thunder for One Bass Timpani by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös offers the player opportunity to demonstrate sundry technical possibilities. Pumping the tuning pedals to alter pitches, Nemish found an assortment of colors with an array of mallets and mallet techniques, including hard ends creating tight, crackling sounds, intermittent rim shots, and more resonant tones generated by softer, more generously-sized mallet ends. Eötvös even calls for a cymbal to be laid on the drum skin and whacked in various creative ways. Sitting in a spotlight alone with just one drum, Nemish, normally buried away in the back, had a chance to shine, and he gave the audience an education in his art, which they appreciated tremendously.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra timpanist Barry Nemish was the soloist in Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös’ ‘Thunder for One Bass Timpani.’ (Photo by DT Baker)

Prior has a penchant for northern European composers and has programmed a considerable amount of Sibelius in his five years in Edmonton. An accomplished composer and arranger in his own right, for this concert he took Carl Nielsen’s Canto serioso, originally for French horn and piano, and gave it an orchestral flavor. The performance featured assistant principal horn player Megan Evans. The original song isn’t particularly linear, and adding orchestra to the tune gave it an even more gnarly feel. Evans played too softly, or the orchestra too loudly, but the result was an interesting experiment.

In keeping with what many organizations are doing in the face of the Ukrainian tragedy, the orchestra played a sweet arrangement of the Ukrainian national anthem, featuring its associate concertmaster Eric Buchmann playing the tune in the foreground of the orchestration. That bit of conventional-sounding musical fare was followed by a quirky three-minute piece by innovative Canadian composer Nicole Lizée. Zeiss After Dark is a shimmering drift of rhythmic irregularity and playful directional shifts, creating an effect between lulling and anticipation.

Soviet composer Galina Ustvolskaya, was known as “the lady with the hammer.” (Wiki)

The finale of this concert was a revelation. Prior received his training at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and his immersion in things Russian must have introduced him to the female Soviet dissident composer Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006). I doubt any Edmonton audience had ever heard Ustvolskaya’s music live. Her Symphony No. 5 is scored for five instruments: tuba, oboe, trumpet, violin, and a boxy wooden instrument she designed and often used, called “the cube.”

The work’s subtitle is “Amen,” and throughout the 13-minute piece a narrator (in this case Prior, who’s fluent in Russian) interspersed the Lord’s Prayer in Church Slavonic. A critic gave Ustvolskaya the nickname “the lady with the hammer,” and this piece revealed how she got the handle. There is a ritualistic theatricality to the work, a measured presentation of music meant to shade a certain religious sentiment. I heard an echo of the opening Glass ethos, although not his kind of relentlessness.

Ustvolskaya’s modest symphony relies little on harmony, each instrument mostly soloing or replying to a sparse melodic phrase (some of her music has been compared to Messaien), and underlying a lot of it is the hammering, sometimes temperately, sometimes aggressively, of the cube. Ustvolskaya specified “an enclosed chipboard cube 43 cm x 43 cm, (to be) struck with wooden hammers” for the piece, and the ESO’s rendition looked pretty accurate.

The audience of perhaps 800 loved this unusual ESO presentation and gave the musicians an exuberant standing ovation.