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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Opinion: On a single album track and the meaning of liking or disliking a piece of music

By John Terauds on February 5, 2013

Voces Boreales CD booklet.indd

Pianist Yoko Hirota offers up a magnificent interpretation of Toronto composer Brian Current‘s 2007 piece Sungods on her new album, Voces Boreales, released last night by Centrediscs at a Canadian Music Centre concert.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

There are five works by Canadian composers representing 18 pieces on this album. One, Sungods, has lodged itself deep in my being.

The secret to understanding and appreciating new music is to listen to it over and over again, to let the composer’s intentions and the interpreter’s realisation mix and shape their spell.

The first thing to say is that we could probably find 18 listeners who each likes a different piece on this album. Each composer has something to say. Current is joined by Robert Lemay, Laurie Radford, Brian Cherney and François Morel, together representing a cross-section of living Canadian art music history.

So why would one track out of the 18 have become such a favourite?

It’s because Current has found a way to say something fresh musically that explores the full power and possibilities of a modern concert grand piano as well as giving the interpreter the opportunity to show off what 10 fingers can do when you practice 8 hours a day.

Sungods is a 7-plus minute atonal, contemporary work not anchored in a specific set of modes or keys. Instead, it is a study of motion and sonority and texture. It’s a study built on various lengths of musical patterns that are repeated over and over again — with gradual variations and sudden shifts.

If that sounds a bit like John Adams, it is in theory. The result is however, in several instances, much more deeply sensual. This is a piece that loves the piano — and the piano loves it in return, lending support with its deep, growly bass and giving it shimmer and sparkle with tinkly high notes.

There is perpetual motion here — at times harnessed to serve the art of not going anywhere and at others sounding like a big cartoon dog running like mad with an airborne little girl on the other end of the leash.

There’s an ecstatic quality to some of this motion, encouraging the listener to let go and get caught up in the swirl.

I haven’t seen the score, so it’s not at all clear to me how Hirota can play all of Current’s notes with just 10 fingers. But she does, with utter conviction, purpose and style.

This is music that’s all about technique — from the composer as well as the interpreter — but the performance transcends technique, turning it into theatre. The sounds are at once familiar yet totally new, encouraging the curious to listen again and again. The surface is impressive, seductive, but the structure beneath it continues to yield surprises with subsequent listens.

Music that can work on so many different levels is rare.

That may seem counter-intuitive, given the hundreds upon hundreds of pieces in the Western art music canon. But these works are the tip of a massive iceberg.

Whenever I have time, I go diving into the dustbin of musical history. My last outing, yesterday, was through forgotten vocal hits from the late 1790s and early 1800s (spurred by a request to help with a concert happening next summer). Some of the stuff was so horrible it’s hard to believe now that it got published in the first place, but it clearly spoke to its time, ephemeral as a teen heartthrob.

Each era or age has its style, and most of us — whether creators or consumers — duly follow it. The captivatingly original is uncommon, and will always be so.

Each piece of music is based on structures and techniques. What turns it into art is when these bricks and bolts dissolve into a greater experience. The basis is laid by the composer and realised by the interpreter.

Current’s Sungods + Hirota = success.

You can find a short sample of Sungods on the album’s web page. Yoko Hirota is streaming a full performance of the piece on here website here.

John Terauds

 

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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