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Toronto composer Gary Kulesha offers chance to savour modern symphony as musical journey

By John Terauds on November 3, 2013

Gary Kulesha (NAC photo).
Gary Kulesha (NAC photo).

For Wednesday and Thursday, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has boldly programmed a recent symphony by Toronto composer Gary Kulesha alongside works by Joseph Haydn and Johannes Brahms.

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

Haydn and Brahms were, in their very different times, masters of form and how to make it their own.

It’s rare enough for a Canadian composer to get an opportunity to write for full symphony orchestra, much less develop musical ideas in long form rather than as a concert overture.

Kulesha had one such chance when he was commissioned to write something for Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra. The result, premiered in 2007, was Third Symphony.

It’s a piece that does’t take its title lightly — so much so that it even has the requisite fast-slow-fast, three-movement sequence that ties it directly to the classical forms of Haydn and Brahms.

Kulesha explains in the programme notes that he had two of Beethoven’s symphonies — Nos 6 & 7 — open on his desk as he was writing his Third.

This wasn’t so that he could create a postmodern pastiche. Rather, as he writes in the programme notes, he wanted the old to inspire something totally new.

“All too often, when composers try to compose music that is bright and positive, they turn backwards, and write poor imitations of older music, or, worse, they compose cheap music cynically calculated to ‘win over’ an audience,” writes Kulesha.

“I believe that we can move forward while at the same time recapturing the joyousness that drew us all, listener and musician alike, into music in the first place. This is what I have tried to do in this symphony.”

Despite the composer’s brave words, I wondered if there still isn’t a big intimidation factor when the weight of history is not only breathing down your neck, but looking up at you from your desk.

Kulesha wrote back in an email yesterday:

“I would not say ‘intimidating.’ I would say that a composer cannot and should not use the word ‘symphony’ lightly. It certainly does carry freight. There is, of course, a substantial repertoire of masterpieces which demand respect.

“But beyond this, the concept of the symphony is a rarefied one. A symphony, for me, is a journey. A multi-movement work without a journey is a suite.

“It has been argued, for example, that Copland’s Third Symphony, while a great piece of music, is not actually a symphony, because there is no voyage of discovery.

“I often quote Hemingway’s line about Dostoyevsky’s writing: reading it changes you. You are different person after you read Dostoyevsky. A symphony should strive to do the same thing.

“How? Who knows? Musicians have been trying to understand for centuries why Beethoven sonatas feel like sonatas, not collections of movements.

“I cannot say that I am intimidated by the symphony, but I can say that I approach it with full awareness of the demands of the form.”

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Kulesha is among the most self-aware, eloquent, incisive (and funny) composers I have had the luck to meet and talk to. He is also remarkably candid in a world where everyone tries to be very polite and encouraging, at least in public.

For remarkably clear-headed insights into the creative process — both of writing as well as listening — of a composer, try Kulesha’s incisive, thought-provoking blog, New Music Canada, here.

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This week’s two-concert Toronto Symphony programme is particularly attractive. The Haydn symphony is “The Miracle,” one of his great London works, from 1791. The Brahms piece is Piano Concerto No. 2, with perennial-favourite soloist Emanuel Ax. Peter Oundjian conducts.

You’ll find all the concert details 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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