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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

CONCERT REVIEW: Toy Piano Composers and Cellophone are Pleasantly Gritty

By Tyler Versluis on January 30, 2015

The Toy Piano Composers
The Toy Piano Composers

[Updated: January 31, 2015.]

In general, I find the best concert-going experiences are when not only the music is excellent but when the experience delivers a revelation. A presumptuous attitude, perhaps, but I feel this is what divides an entertaining experience from an artistic one.

Last Saturday, the Toy Piano Composers teamed up with cello and saxophone duo Cellophone (Chelsea Shanoff, saxophone, Nadia Klein, cello) to deliver one of the Toy Piano Composers’ most enriching concert experiences in their seven years of existence, subtitled “Grit”. Revelations were abound- some of them positive, and others questionable. This concert reminded me of music’s magical ability to turn the ordinary into something extraordinary, as well as the troubling problem of writing music with extra-musical influences.

Chris Thornborrow’s opening piece for baritone saxophone and cello, titled “Boats and Balloons”, is based on a painting by Hamilton artist Conrad Furey. The duet opened with a woody, lopsided oom-pah-pah (the only way I can describe the sound of a saxophone and cello duet is “woody”) and meandered quaintly onward. The piece, like Furey’s painting, was disarmingly naïve and a tad melancholy throughout.

Nancy Tam’s piece “Pentimento” demonstrated what good music has the power to accomplish: turning the ordinary into something extraordinary. Tam used a field recording of air howling through a tunnel and illuminated it with incandescent musical textures and harmonized its rumbles and howls with snatches of melody from the piano, violin, cello, and sax. The result was unpretentious and strangely magical.

Next was Toronto-based Newfoundlander Bekah Simms’ short, robust piece “Junk” for percussion and saxophone, which aptly lived up to its name and served as a reminder that percussionists, if provoked, will hit anything they can get their hands on.

The first half of the concert closed uneasily with Monica Pearce’s chamber piece “passive aggressive- defensive – contempt – stonewalling”, a “four movement work depicting the four destructive emotions that can unravel the delicate framework of relationships.” The music, though occasionally evocative of these emotions (such as a solo violin playing “tonelessly” in the fourth movement, “stonewalling”), left me pondering the tenuous connection between concert music and extra-musical influence. If the music fails to conjure these extra-musical ideas in the head of the listener, is the piece a failure? Pierce’s chamber piece left me feeling aptly disconcerted, but its musical language never suggested anything more to me than the general emotional underpinnings one hears in “modern” sounding music.

After intermission, a thrilling solo saxophone piece by Colin Labadie kicked off the second half of the programme. Labadie’s piece, “Strata”, is virtuosic in the same way that Bach’s solo cello suites are virtuosic- the performer is required to create the illusion of multiples lines of musical material with only one instrument. Saxophonist Chelsea Shanoff pulled off this stunt without waffling and (seemingly!) without breathing once while doing it. It makes me wonder why Toronto composers don’t celebrate virtuosity more often in their music- and by virtuosity I mean complex, challenging music performed by intelligent, dedicated performers like Shanoff.

The concert closed with two more pieces, José Puello’s work for percussion and flute, which was saved from unremarkability by Sarah Yunji Moon’s gorgeous and piercingly silver flute tone, and a work by Toy Piano Composer member Daniel Brophy. Again, this piece was weighed down by an extra-musical context that failed to materialize inside my head- this time it was philosophical concepts of the Other by Marquis de Sade. Despite this, the piece had a dark, subtle dramatic arc, where Chelsea Shanoff’s saxophone and Nadia Klein’s cello emerged out of obscurity to assume solo roles before fading back into darkness.

[Correction: Nancy Tam’s piece was for piano, violin, cello, and sax, not flute and clarinet as originally stated]

Tyler Versluis

Tyler Versluis

Tyler is a Toronto based writer, composer, and Doctoral student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music.

Tyler Versluis

Tyler is a Toronto based writer, composer, and Doctoral student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music.
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