On Friday night at the Annex Theatre, even the bitter cold couldn’t stop an enthusiastic crowd from attending Spectrum Music’s Atlas of Imaginary Places concert. It was a program of premieres under the artistic direction of Ben Dietschi, with performances by contemporary vocalists Felicity Williams, Alex Samaras, violinist Aline Homzy and Andrew Kesler on piano.
The Annex Theatre is an intimate venue not usually associated with contemporary music, but it offered Spectrum Music, founded in 2010, unique opportunities to experiment with lighting, staging, and sound.
Award-winning composer Nick Storring’s Gardens served as ambient sound while audience members milled about with drinks, pondering the mysterious blue hue cast over a stage decorated with faux greenery, soft candle-esque lights and antique lanterns, books, and even a typewriter.
Toronto-based writer Mike Ventola read from American poet Anne Sexton’s 1971 collection, Transformations, which presents a different perspective on classic fairy tales. While the readings were well chosen, there was a lack of poetry in the reading itself. Still, it was a nice warm-up to the musical program that followed.
The quartet of performers opened with composer Matthew Roberts’ provocative arrangement of “Pure Imagination,” a song from the motion picture Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. If you closed your eyes, you could have easily mistaken it for an electronic remix. But the sound was coming from an ensemble on stage, whose high level of commitment to their performance could not be in doubt.
What followed was Dragon Suite, a 30-minute work co-written by Homzy and Kesler for recording. This evening was the first live performance, presented from memory.
Not a note of this composition has been written down, although that is the plan. They captured musical ideas on their smart phones, then transformed them into Dragon Suite using a combination of through-composition and improvisation techniques.
The simplicity of lines in Dragon Suite concealed subtle and layered complexities. Sophisticated rhythms were beguiled by sweet melodies with a contemporary bent. The result was sophisticated without being pretentious, familiar yet defying categorization.
Homzy and Kesler demonstrated incredible musical prowess and chemistry, expressing and evoking exactly what their music intended.
Their performance left me feeling as satisfied as hearing a great concerto or intense chamber work. I also felt a bit confused, as I have never had both those feelings evoked at the same time. It was a sweet confusion.
After the intermission, Williams and Samaras returned for all three new works by Spectrum Music composers written specifically for this unique ensemble.
Shannon Graham’s The Seafarers was inspired by the popular board game Settlers of Catan, set in an age where pirates might interrupt an otherwise serene voyage. Both Williams and Samaras were out of sight, offering siren-like echoes while the music ebbed with a violin melody that was just a touch too soft to hear.
Heather Segger’s Love Through a Looking Glass explored the age-old theme of forbidden love, with Williams and Samaras both sounding and acting their parts. This touching, effective piece was beautifully written and performed.
To complete the evening, Ben Dietschi’s The Snail and the Rose Tree took its text from Hans Christian Andersen, and set it with musical forms and ideas nodding to both classical and jazz idioms. There were musical and textual conversations at every level, written to highlight the strengths of each performer.
Samaras’ Elvis-Costello-like voice was a fine compliment to Williams’, whose crystal sound always seem to emerge from nowhere. Both are talented vocalists who barely scratched the surface of their musicality in this concert.
As for the Homzy/Kesler Duo, I sincerely hope that their artistic collaboration continues. They brought a refreshing and innovative sound that audiences could really love.
Spectrum Music’s purpose as a collective is not to test the limits of sound, or to extend our understanding and use of instruments, although this is part of what they do. They are writing and presenting new music that evokes emotions, with incredibly talented performers that cross the classical, jazz and pop divides with artful ease.
They have one final concert this season on April 17: Early Expressions is inspired by early cave paintings in the famed Chauvet Cave. Event details can be found here.
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