Soundstreams also assembled a chamber orchestra – the “Virtuoso String Orchestra” – made up of some of the leading players around town, and led by conductor Joaquin Valdepeñas (better known as the TSO’s principal clarinetist).
First up was John Luther Adams’ Dream in White on White. Adams, who lives and works in Alaska, has made the Northern landscape a central theme in many of his compositions – and this work, which he wrote in 1992, is certainly one of them. For this piece, the orchestra was divided into a “foreground” quartet at the front of the stage, and a larger “background” group positioned as far back as possible. (In addition to strings, the foreground group also included a harpist, Sanya Eng.)
Adams’ intended Dream in White on White to be a depiction of a winter landscape – and, in this regard, the piece is entirely convincing. Soft, sustained, vibrato-less chords hung in the air, suggesting an endless vista of white. The foreground elements were artfully crafted to animate the piece, through gradually changing patterns. It’s a hauntingly beautiful piece, delicate in texture, dynamics and tonality. Under Valdepeñas, it was well shaped.
The next work, Mojave Dreaming, by Canadian composer Paul Frehner, was a world premiere. In one sense, Frehner’s programmatic inspiration of desert heat was the opposite of Adams’ frozen world. Yet there are also similarities: both call to mind a harsh and forbidding sense of emptiness. Frehner’s score (in three movements: “Heat Haze,” “Haboob,” and “Dust Devils”) exhibited the same kind of expansiveness as the Adams – but its surface was more animated, filled with shimmering “hyper-vibrato” passages, and powerfully surging “hairpin” crescendos. It was evocative stuff – and again Valdepeñas and his string band (augmented by Gregory Oh on the harpsichord, and some discreet electroacoustic elements) handled the piece nicely.
The magnum opus of the evening occupied the entire second half of the program. The South African-born violinist Daniel Hope stepped out as both soloist and conductor of a musical work that was evidently dear to his heart: The Four Seasons Recomposed, by the English composer Max Richter.
Richter is not the first modern composer to create a season-based work in the spirit of Vivaldi: Astor Piazzolla cobbled together his Four Seasons of Buenos Aires between 1965 and 1970; and Philip Glass brought out his American Four Seasons in 2010. But whereas Piazzolla and Glass were content to invoke the spirit of the original Four Seasons, Steiner’s effort involved a close reworking of Vivialdi’s actual notes. For this reason, the movements of the Steiner (twelve in total) are clearly recognizable: usually the solo melodies are more-or-less intact, but they are set against postmodern harmonies and funky rhythms.
The result was both clever and gimmicky. When it was good, Richter’s Four Seasons reminded me of Michael Nyman’s music. Sadly, at other times, Karl Jenkins sprang to mind. Despite Hope’s brilliantly intense execution, one hearing left me with a pronounced “been there, done that” feeling. I’m glad I heard it – but I am in no hurry to hear it again.
© Colin Eatock 2014