MRDe-music review: Classics of Our Time
A presentation of The Esprit Orchestra
with Eleanor James (mezzo-soprano)

Thursday, October 27, 2005 8 pm
Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street, Toronto


I know, in my prior (and first) nice review, the niceness was a bit lacking. Let's see if I can do better this time.

It's always with mixed feelings I drag my sorry self to anything save for my slovenly home after hours at the paying day gig. Glad I did tonight.

The Esprit Orchestra started off their 23rd season in Hogtown (I was going to say right here in Hogtown ... fourtunately, I am far from Hogtown as I write this. I'll probably be in Hogtown when I post it though. Damn.) with a set of four very diverse works, each strong and attractive in its own different way and each very well played.

The "overture" for the evening's show was Jose Evangelista's Orchestre concertant, a five movement work. This work's strengths were rhythmic verve and a really wonderful interplay of rapid and intricate material between soloists (the work is essentially a concerto grosso, a small group of soloists playing with the orchestra), which I experienced very clearly as I was seated practically inside the orchestra.

So far, I've been nice. Good for me.

Marc-Andre Dalbavie, I'm told, is a rising star in his native France, and I'm assured we'll hear more of him here in the near future. Sinfonietta (named after Janecek's somewhat disappointing piece of the same name ... ooops, sorry, that wasn't nice. I'll rein myself in) sounded absolutely ravishing. My brain essentially just shut down and wallowed in the sound. I'm left wanting to hear the piece again to find out what lies behind that invitingly sensuous orchestral sound, and this work leaves me eager to hear more of his work (preferably live ... recordings never quite capture this type of sonic richness).

Sorry for the paranthetical non-niceness there ... I'll behave.

Harry Freedman's Manipulating Mario is based on material from Harry Somers' opera Mario and the Magician. Alex Pauk, Esprit's conductor, introduced this work from the podium; he touched on the importance of Freedman, and to an extent Somers ("the two Harrys"), on composition in Ontario in particular and Canada in general, as well as the close musical and personal relationship between the Harrys.

This work's attractions were mainly melodic, hardly surprising given the operatic origins of the source material. The final section of the work I found particularly appealing, an almost villianous march, albeit with touches of off-kilter humour, leading to a very abrupt but totally appropriate and convincing end to the entire work.

Schafer's Minnelieder. Minnelieder .... German for "love poetry" essentially. Warning ... I'm hard put to be nice when confronted with love poetry, especially poetry that deals with the "wilder" (or "romanticized", to use the word in its artistic meaning) love of youth and early adulthood, and the irrationality of this kind of love. I'm always a bit of a cynic about any treatment (dramatic, literary, poetic, movie-etic, etc. etc.) of this type of love, as people subject to it act like fools, and fools are fun to ridicule. As an aside, I find that love later in life seems to have a different texture to it; it can be equally but differently exultant, wonderful and painful, and it's easier to deal with rationally. It's like the difference between good beer and good wine perhaps ... both are good, but one learns to appreciate the subtler and richer experience of wine with long familiarity. Nothing against beer, mind you ... unless it is from Molson ... or worse than Molson ...

Oopppps .... that wasn't nice. Nor was it on topic. I'll get back on the topical niceness track ... mmmm ..... train track.

Schafer was about 20 when he wrote this work, which was originally a setting of 13 medeivel German love poems for voice and small wind ensemble. The orchestral version played tonight dates from 1986, and includes an additional setting. Minnelieder is a young man's setting of texts expressing what I consider a youthful look at love. The excellence of the music and the performance (singer Eleanor James brought these works to life) overcame my somewhat cynical thoughts about the texts themselves.

The strengths of this work are the dazzling orchestral sound, the wide range of feeling (many shades of emotion are covered, from the positive ones associated with happy or new love, to the melancholy or even violence of relationship breakdowns), the melodic attactiveness (some of which is derived from the use of medeivel German tunes), and the tautness of the work as a whole. Each of the 14 songs is conceived individually (no cross-realtionship of material that I could detect), yet the segues between songs were amazingly well handled, leaving me revelling in the emotional and technical aspects of these transitions, and holding my attention throughout.

Ugh ... can no longer be nice ... the final song, "The Poet's Epitaph" (text credited to Heinrich von Morunger, who I will now call Mr. Poet), essentially goes as follows: "My fair love looks so good, but whine whine whine ... why did you betray me?" with no real specifics on the pathology of the relationship's death. I've learned painfully that there are few relationships that fail because of the actions or feelings of only one of the partners. What did you do wrong, Mr. Poet? C'mon, fess up ... what mistake, mis-step, or act of commission/omission makes part of the relationship's failure YOUR fault? Oh, sure ... go on ... just whine 'romantically' then and admit nothing. Idiot.

Whew ... now I've got that out of my system, time for:

The CONCLUSION

A great and varied show. Very different, strong pieces. Excellent singing ... well, excellent performances all around. Kudos to the composers, Alex Pauk, all the musicians of Esprit, Eleanor James, and the management, organizers, and behind the scenes staff of Esprit. Well done all.