Soundstreams turns 30 tonight with a musical bash at Koerner Hall that promises to showcase what the music presenter does best, highlighting Canadian talents as equals to the world’s.
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Toronto soprano Shannon Mercer is the vocal star in a musical cast full of appeal, including percussion master Ryan Scott, the Gryphon Trio, Nexus, flutist Julie Ranti, the Virtuoso String Orchestra (a high-powered group that includes many members drawn from Toronto’s best professional orchestras, whose concertmaster is the busy Benjamin Bowman) and David Fallis’s new-music-focused Choir 21.
The evening’s conductors are Fallis and Joaquin Valdepeñas, best known as the Toronto Symphony’s principal clarinet.
The musical celebrations spill out into the lobby, with the world premiere of Omar Daniel’s Prologue, Entr’act and Postlude to grab the attention of people who would otherwise be catching up on each other’s gossip and adventures.
The main programme blends older favourites with new compositions.
The oldest, Steve Reich’s Clapping Music (a duet for four hands) predates Soundstreams by 10 years (Nexus will also perform a newer piece by Reich, Mallet Quartet, from 2009).
The string viruosi, augmented by the Gryphons, take on three movements from Canadian composer Paul Frehner’s Berliner Konzert, a 2009 response to the 20th anniversary of the reunification of Germany.
The biggest international name on the programme is Estonian Arvo Pärt, whose 12-year-old Orient & Occident is tackled by the Virtuoso String Orchestra (the East-meets-West theme comes from the text of a creed shared by both Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches).
The party on stage is capped by something from R. Murray Schafer: The Love that Moves the Universe, a musical setting of portions of the Paradise canticle from Dante’s Divine Comedy — with the singers and instrumentalists appropriately arranged in a circle.
Two young composers get world premieres with the help of Mercer, the Virtuoso strings and Ryan Scott: Analia Llugdar’s Sentir de cacerolas (The Sound of Pots), a piece inspired by the kitchen-pot marches in Buenos Aires 10 years ago, which had clangorous echoes in the streets of Montreal last year during the student protests; and The Mountain Spirit, by Fuhong Shi.
Shi studied composition at University of Toronto, making many friends in the new music community — links that continue to bring her creations to our part of the world despite the fact that she is now in her third year as a composition professor (and coordinator of the first international composition workshops in China) at the Central Conservatory in Beijing.
Shi says her music is evolving into a more tonal idiom that integrates more of the traditional sounds of China.
“The vocal part in this piece is inspired by Chinese opera music in both the vocal part and the accompaniment,” she explains. This creates a juxtaposition of a fast-moving, highly rhythmical accompaniment over a long, slow melody, she says.
The main image in the new piece comes from a young girl. “The accompaniment follows her quick footsteps to create the mood,” Shi explains.
“All my pieces are related to the I Ching, the universe and nature. The human mind and spirit are there, too,” explains the composer. “Now, I’m focused very much on the innermost self,” thanks to her own personal emotional evolution, she says.
“I am the Mountain Spirit,” she says of the pure and simple young girl suffering from unrequited love in an old Chinese poem by Yuan Qu that inspired this piece. It is a poem that has been set to music many times before, including in popular music.
“My writing is more like drama, it is a monologue of the Mountain Spirit,” Shi adds.
Mercer has carved out an interesting career that includes a lot of work at both ends of the Western spectrum: Early and Baroque music and new music.
She says this isn’t as unusual as it may sound. “There’s often a facility, versatility and flexibility that comes with singing Early and Baroque music that you can apply to new music,” the soprano explains.
“You have to have a strong technique and confidence,” Mercer says. “Good composers know how to write for the voice.”
Tonight’s concert is but one stop in a busy new-music month for Mercer, who leaves this weekend for a European tour of Svadba/Wedding with Queen of Puddings Music Theatre that includes stops in Dublin, Paris and Belgrade.
For all the details on tonight’s programme, click here.
Even better than a hand of applause is a sample of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, from a University of Texas at Austin recital: