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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Concert review: Minimalist Dream House Project forgets that less is more

By John Terauds on August 1, 2013

The musicians of the Minimalist dream House Project on the Koerner Hall stage Thursday  night (John Terauds phone photo).
The musicians of the Minimalist Dream House Project on the Koerner Hall stage Thursday night (John Terauds phone photo).

Although Toronto Summer Music Festival artistic director Douglas McNabney underlined how less is more when it comes to minimalism, the Labèque sisters and their Minimalist Dream House Project at Koerner Hall on Thursday night were not just examples of more being more, but of too much being too much.

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

That’s not to say there wasn’t some extraordinary musicmaking on stage. But any concert of Western music that demands four hours of our time, dropping us into the street at a quarter to midnight, had better make a pretty strong case for itself.

And this is where the Minimalist Dream House Project fell short.

Billed as a celebration of minimalism as it flourished amid New York and Los Angeles avant-gardists in the early 1960s, the project is a full-term survey course on the aesthetic and evolution of minimalist music compressed into four hours, minus the lecture notes.

Ostensibly headed up by Katia and Marielle Labèque, the world’s veteran piano-duo team, the Minimalist Dream House Project is clearly more Katia’s undertaking, as Marielle disappeared later in the evening and, along with nearly two-thirds of Thursday’s audience, didn’t show up for the final curtain call.

The pianist(s) were joined by guitarist and singer David Chalmin, electric bass player Alexandre Maillard, keyboard player Nicola Tescari and percussionist Raphaël Séguinier for much of the concert, which continually underlined the kinship between minimalism and 1980s guitar pop and some electronica.

The elephant in Koerner Hall — and on every other stage where any artist says they are presenting minimalist music — is that there is no such thing.

Minimalism has become a shorthand for a variety of pattern-based compositional styles that make uneasy bedfellows in a single programme.

As if to illustrate the point, the evening started with a magical excerpt from an 1891 score of incidental music for a play, Le Fils des étoiles (The Son of the Stars), by Erik Satie, who wouldn’t have recognized minimalism if Piet Mondrian had painted it on his bathroom mirror.

But it was a sort of pattern music. The Labèque sisters, later joined by the band, gave us four more examples — by John Cage, Arvo Pärt, William Duckworth and Philip Glass — each very different yet filled with the sort of careful layering of repetition and variation that gives this type of music impetus as well as interest.

This took us to the end of the first hour. It would have made for a short but extremely satisfying concert, both intimate and revelatory, showing off the subtle and manifold talents of Katia’s brain and artistic trust.

That said, a 30-minute performance of Terry Riley’s seminal work, In C, was an excellent way to open Part II, but then the pop slant took over, the music got too loud and, in what was the real attention killer, too repetitive, as each song began quietly, working its way up to a grand, orgasmic eruption before coming to a shuddering halt.

I stepped out into the lobby to catch my breath, following the progress of the concert from the comfortable remove of video screen and piped-in sound.

The audience members who stayed for Part III were rewarded by the final reappearance of Marielle Labèque in a radiant solo performance of excerpts from Images, a 1989 suite by Howard Skempton.

Séguiner also presented an otherworldly extended solo riff on a large gong that, at its apogee, sounded like a dozen runaway locomotives. This was awesome, in the full sense of the word.

But the programme had, like the train metaphor, run out of steam, and presented little new as midnight began to loom over our eyelids.

Toronto Summer Music had tossed aside this year’s theme of La Belle Epoque for one night in order to present something that appeared on paper to be not only hip but generation-crossing and something that defied normal classical concert parameters.

There were many people present who loudly and enthusiastically voiced their love for the result, but for this tired listener, the evening was more like an opportunity squandered — or, rather, exceeded by excess.

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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