The world premiere of Chris Paul Harman’s … with silver bells and cockle shells … wasn’t nearly as loud as Mono-Prism, but it was impressive in many other ways. The piece is a song-cycle, sung by soprano Shannon Mercer, based on such familiar nursery rhymes as “Hush Little Baby,” and “Jack and Jill.” They are short – sometimes arrestingly so, as with “Hickory Dickory Dock,” which felt about 30 seconds long.
In the performance, Esprit conductor Alex Pauk did a fine job of balancing Harman’s subtle textures and delicate colours, emanating from various sections of the orchestra. And it’s hard to imagine a singer better suited to such a piece than Shannon Mercer, whose lyrical soprano voice floated sweetly over the orchestra.
It’s hard to imagine anything more unlike silver bells than Mono-Prism – and perhaps this stark contrast is what Pauk had in mind by putting them both on the same program. Playing a variety of traditional Japanese drums, Toronto’s Nagata Shachu served admirably in the Western context of a virtuoso soloist with orchestra. At first, their stick-work, on the smaller drums, was a soft, thrumming wave of tension that gradually built to a bright, edgy clatter. And when the big drum – the O-Daiko – was called into service, Koerner Hall was shaken to its foundations.
Yet, as impressive as all this was, not a whole lot actually happens, musically speaking, in Mono-Prism. There’s a blunt simplicity about the piece, which can be fairly summed up as a thunderous tsumami of drums, interspersed with jagged, dissonant outbursts from the orchestra. Still, it was well worth hearing, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity.
The two other pieces on the program – Fuhong Shi’s Concentric Circles and Scott Wilson’s Dark Matter (given its world premiere in this concert) – were similar, in some ways. Both were amorphous essays in orchestral colours and textures, and in this regard, both were successful. Yet for me, this kind of music only goes so far, lacking as it does musical ideas solid enough to hang a hat on. I weary of the phrase “an orchestration in search of a composition,” but I find myself typing these words once again.
Shi’s Concentric Circles did have the virtue of brevity, yet to my ears it seemed both static and arbitrary in its ephemeral unfolding. Wilson’s Dark Matter, a three-movement work that incorporated electroacoustic sounds, was more substantial. It also had a stronger sense of direction: a welcome sense of expectation, and the fulfillment of expectation. However, the projected images that accompanied Dark Matter (created with the help of media artist Konstantinos Vasilakos) were underwhelming, resembling computer screen-savers from the 1980s.
© Colin Eatock 2018