Multimedia concerts are a growing trend in the classical music world. Often, such performances make use of projected visual images, giving the audience something to look at while the music is played.
Sometimes the marriage of music and visuals results in a merely pleasant entertainment. Ideally, multimedia generates something greater than the sum of its parts – something that makes the audience see, hear, and understand things in a profoundly different way than it would if it experienced each element separately.
This is an astonishing piece – or, more precisely, an astonishing collection of pieces, as it combines Charles Ives’ Piano Trio of 1911 with three new works by Quebec composers Simon Martin, Gabriel Dharmoo and Nicole Lizée. The show received its Toronto premiere on Friday (May 22), within the Royal Conservatory of Music’s 21C contemporary music festival.
The performers of Illusions were the Gryphons, the 13-piece Ensemble contemporain de Montréal (led by Véronique Lacroix), and also baritone Vincent Ranallo. Behind them on the stage of Koerner Hall was an impressively large projection screen, hung for the projected images of filmmakers Kara Blake and Corinne Merrell.
Imaginatively, the new compositions were interleaved with the three movements of the Ives Trio, creating a dialogue between the New England maverick and the young Quebeckers. In the Ives movements, the Gyrphon Trio breathed energy and even elegance into what can be very “notey” music.
As Illusions progressed, the visual aspect of the show gradually emerged. At first, the audience was treated to cryptically static images of the moon, light-bulbs, and other circular objects.
The first newly written piece, Martin’s Musique d’art pour orchestre de chambre II, was also cryptically static. It consisted almost entirely of dense chords, played in long, slow crescendos and diminuendos, like an orchestration of an electroacoustic composition. It was a well-crafted piece: skilfully controlled by Lacroix and Ensemble contemporain de Montréal. As it gradually became more eventful, it also became more interesting.
Dharmoo’s Wanmansho was, I believe, the most successful of the new compositions. The title is a play on the phrase “one man show,” and the piece almost defies description: try to imagine Dr. Who performing Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in Esperanto with a kabuki ensemble. Dressed in a goofy red jacket, Ranallo leapt on stage, singing (also grunting and squeaking) in an unintelligible language, his vaudevillian antics bringing the piece to life. And there was also plenty of grunting and squeaking from Ensemble contemporain de Montréal, as they played their way through Dharmoo’s colourful, percussive, wacky score.
Meanwhile, on the big screen, the visual images gradually acquired a clear theme: scenes of old-fashioned carousels and other circus rides. The projections were well suited to Lizée’s carnivalesque Wunderkammer, played by ECM+ and the Gryphon Trio together.
Lizée has brought a varied harmonic vocabulary to Wunderkammer, transforming her small orchestra into a bright, gaudy calliope. The piece could be broadly described as minimalist, for its steady textures and motoric repetition. Unfortunately, like some other minimalist works, its impact is hobbled by longueurs. As the minutes passed, I came to feel “trapped” by the music – as though I were on carnival ride that was fun for a while, until I just wanted to get off.
Illusions is a high-art experience, rich in content, meticulously constructed, and sophisticated in its multi-faceted unfolding. Refreshingly, the solemn angst that dominates much contemporary music is largely absent. Rather, Illusions is joyful and almost sentimental at times, invoking a nostalgia for carefree pleasures.
In the spirit of Ives, there are some unanswered questions swirling around Illusions. How did the Gryphon Trio and ECM+ come to collaborate on this project? Whose idea was it to intersperse movements of Ives’ Piano Trio with newly created works? How were Martin, Dharmoo, and Lizée selected as composers? Who thought of using these particular visual images?
Surely, such an idiosyncratic work of art as Illusions must have a good back-story. But the slender program notes provided only the most basic information: the artistic directors for the project are Roman Borys (cellist of the Gryphon Trio) and Lacroix. Little else that explained the genesis of the piece was forthcoming.
Two other composers were also on the program, in the first half of the concert. It’s hard to say why, as Illusions is clearly a substantial, stand-alone work. Composer-clarinettist Don Bryon’s Basquiat, Shanty and Russian March, which he played with the Gryphons, were charming pieces. Composer-guitarist Michael Occhipinti joined the band for his Street Scene at the Centre of the Multiverse. The jazzy piece draws on his Italian roots, with recorded voices of Sicilian street-vendors hawking their goods woven into the music. However, Street Scene ran out of ideas well before it came to an end.
© Colin Eatock 2015