21C Offers Mixed Bag Of New Works

L-R, composers Alice Ho (Photo: Bo Huang); Eliot Britton (Photo courtesy of the artist); Ian Cusson (Photo: John Arano); Stewart Goodyear (Photo courtesy of the RCM); Lembit Beecher (Photo: Jamie Jung); Christos Hatzis (Photo: Bo Huang)

21C Cinq à Sept: After the Fires. January 21, 2023, Temerty Theatre, Toronto. / Ian Cusson and Stewart Goodyear: New Works. January 22, 2023, Koerner Hall, Toronto.

The Royal Conservatory’s annual 21C Music Festival is in full swing, with four concerts this past weekend. Two of them featured a total of six works, composed by five Canadians and one American, three pieces receiving their world premieres.

21 Cinq à Sept: After the Fires, the title of Saturday’s concert before a capacity audience in Temerty Theatre, refers to its timing — 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. — and the title of its opening work, a 30-minute song cycle by American composer Lembit Beecher in its first Canadian performance.

Beecher and Canadian librettist Liza Balkan were on hand to explain how Balkan derived her texts from interviews she conducted with people from Beecher’s hometown, Bonny Doon, California, after a devastating wildfire destroyed many houses in August 2020. The words of the seven songs poignantly describe the residents’ panicked decisions about what to take with them, the precious things lost along with their homes and, finally, their hopes for renewal and fears of recurrence.

Soprano Kim Wang, mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig, baritone Korin Thomas-Smith, clarinetist Zachary Gassenheimer and pianist Henry From did their best with the non-tonal, irregularly shaped melodic lines and halting rhythms, which diminished the emotional impact of the townspeople’s distressed words.

Three works about the frozen North followed the intermission, their composers providing spoken introductions. In the first two, flutist Susan Hoeppner was joined by percussionist Beverley Johnston on vibraphone.

Arctic Dreams (1) by Johnston’s husband, Christos Hatzis, is based on his earlier work, Voices of the Land, composed in 1995 for a CBC Radio documentary about Inuit culture. The six-minute piece adds electronic suggestions of chanting, winds and birdcalls to the shimmering, sometimes jazzy, instrumental textures.

Alice Ho said her ten-minute Ice Woman, receiving its world premiere, was inspired by the perilous, solitary journey of 23-year-old Inupiat Ada Blackjack, the only survivor of a 1921 Siberian expedition. However, I failed to detect a clear structure or dramatic trajectory in Ho’s score.

Septentrion, said its composer Eliot Britton, is an archaic Latin word for “north.” Here, Hoeppner was accompanied by a soundtrack containing transposed flute clicks and pops — suggesting, said Britton, wind-blown ice pellets — plus percussive Inuk vocal beatboxing and pulsating electronic dance music, the eight-minute piece providing the concert’s most entertaining music.

Yesterday afternoon’s concert in Koerner Hall began with the first complete performance of Ian Cusson’s Bosch Works, a three-part suite inspired by paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. In an interview with Ludwig Van, Cusson said, “I don’t so much try to capture a music narrative of the paintings […] I try to translate the emotions I feel when experiencing the paintings into music.”

All the specific emotion-evoking paintings were projected on a screen over the stage during the related musical performances; unfortunately, without any closeups of small sections of the paintings, it was impossible to see the many intricate details of Bosch’s often scathing, even phantasmagorical imagery.

The first two movements were devoted to painted triptychs: the nine minutes of The Garden of Earthly Delights (Bosch’s most famous work) were performed by Duo Concertante (violinist Nancy Dahn and pianist Timothy Steeves); the 14-minute Sonata for Oboe and Piano — The Haywain was played by Charles Hamann and Frédéric Lacroix.

Then came The Cure of Madness, the newest of the three sections in this, its world premiere. Lasting 16 minutes, the four movements, each associated with a different satiric painting, introduced a totally fresh sound world. Conveying an unexpected sense of profound personal involvement, its warm lyricism, complex sonorities and challenging harmonies were stirringly performed by Trio Arkel (violinist Marie Bédard, violist Rémi Pelletier and cellist Winona Zelenka). I’d enjoy hearing it again.

The concert’s second half presented the world premiere of Stewart Goodyear’s seven-movement Specially Mixed, commissioned by the 21C Music Festival. Goodyear, renowned for his marathon one-day performances of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, told Ludwig Van that the 46-minute work “incorporates rock, calypso, classical, improvisation…those elements have inspired all that I have written so far.”

It started with Goodyear, alone on stage, performing on piano and synthesizer for nearly ten minutes. He was replaced by Michael Occhipinti on electric guitar, who, for the next 11 minutes, explored amplified improvisations.

Occhipinti was then joined by Goodyear, Roberto Occhipinti on bass guitar, Joy Lapps-Lewis on steel pan and drummer Larnell Lewis for the calypso-jazz fusion that dominated the rest of the piece, interrupted by two movements for Goodyear alone marked Cadenza. In the second of these, rippling, minimalist arpeggios offered gentle, lyrical moments.

Instead of the usual de rigueur standing ovation, only a minority of the audience cheered and stood for Goodyear’s stylistic pastiche. I expect that the remaining four concerts of the 21C festival, on January 25, 28 and 29, will generate much greater listening satisfaction.

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Michael Schulman
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