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ZERO IN | Alexina Louie At The Confluence Of Canada’s 150 Celebrations

By Jennifer Liu on September 26, 2017

Alexina Louie (Photo: Bo Huang)

It’s 2017, and musical intonations of “true patriot love” are ringing across the country as Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary of confederation.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, National Arts Centre Orchestra, and Montreal Symphony Orchestra looked to mark the occasion in a big way, and approached composer Alexina Louie with a commission for a large-scale work to spotlight their three concertmasters. What resulted is her Triple Concerto for Three Violins and Orchestra. It will be performed on a tri-city tour: first in Toronto on September 27 and 28, then Ottawa on October 3, before finishing in Montreal on March 14 and 15. Conductors Peter Oundjian, Alexander Shelley and Kent Nagano will take turns performing the work with their respective orchestras, and Louie promises that each performance will take on a life of its own.

Louie is well-acquainted with the star trio who will be premiering the work. “All three of them are fantastic violinists,” the composer effuses of the TSO’s Jonathan Crow, the NACO’s Yosuke Kawasaki, and the MSO’s Andrew Wan.

A fixture for decades in the nation’s music history textbooks, Alexina Louie is a proud Canadian who was happy to add to the orchestras’ sesquicentenary contribution. “The 150th means a lot to me, because I care a lot about this country, especially after having lived somewhere else,” a reference to her years spent studying and teaching in the United States in the ‘70s. “When I came back to Canada, I really wanted to contribute to the culture here.”

Hailing from Vancouver, Louie attended graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, and she remained in California for a decade. “Once I started teaching in Los Angeles, I really got to understand the differentiation of classes there — the vibe between people who have money and people who don’t, it really got to me after a while. The culture is more aggressive, I would say — the whole time I was there, I felt like a fish out of water.”

The Triple Concerto’s structure is novel: the piece consists of two outer movements, contrasted against a slow inner section. “It is NOT in three movements,” Louie insists. “There wasn’t enough time to write a full second movement, so I call it an ‘interlude’ because it’s very short.” Fast passages dovetail into intricate textures, especially in the opening and closing movements. “When you’re asked to write a concerto for three concertmasters, I think it’s a chance for them to show off their technique. That should be fun — I hope they think it’s fun!”

It the piece’s earlier stages, Louie workshopped the piece with Crow and Wan in Toronto. The concertmasters’ perspective was invaluable to her conception of the piece, and she made alterations to its sound balance between solo and orchestral textures.

Modelled after the classic theme-and-variations form, the musical subject circulates freely among different groups in the ensemble – at times, it’s heard in unison among the soloists, sometimes it is taken up by an individual with the other two violinists in a supportive role, and at other times it is passed onto the orchestra. But fashioning a piece for three prominent violinists comes with inherent logistical challenges. “I had to keep thinking if this was equitable — are they each getting their moment? You don’t want to bury the three guys if you have them work that hard!”

Jonathan Crow, Yosuke Kawasaki and Andrew Wan rehearse the Triple Concerto in Ottawa. (Photo: David Kawai)
Jonathan Crow, Yosuke Kawasaki and Andrew Wan rehearse the Triple Concerto in Ottawa. (Photo: David Kawai)

Across her musical output, Louie strives to create an evocative sound world, whether the medium is pianistic, orchestral, or for a chamber group. In this Triple Concerto, colourful Italian terms such as espressivo, sospirando, and scintillante permeate the score. Louie revels in the Triple Concerto’s moments of calm: “Slow sections are very important to me, because they’re very intimate. Sospirando sets the tone: longing.” This sentiment is often evoked in the piece by woodwinds over falling phrases.

“After the slow interlude, the three violinists just hit it — they play a motoric section with a lot of energy. And that motoric energy suddenly shifts into a passage that is played on the vibraphone, the glockenspiel, and the harp. Those form the core of the piece. It’s almost bell-like, repetitive. It’s a fast passage that needs to resonate. Over that resonant sound are the three violins — mostly in unison — playing a melody that soars over the percussion and harp. And the whole orchestra joins into the big finale.”

For the uninitiated listener, Louie recommends an open approach to the passing sounds and motoric activity, and also to watch for the intricate relationship between the solo violinists. “This piece is in one continuum — it’s one big arc from the beginning to the end; it doesn’t come to a stop.”

Does her Triple Concerto for Three Violins and Orchestra go by another name? Louie dismisses the notion after a moment of thought. “I’ve been calling it that for a long time, because that’s what it is, a triple concerto. It tells you a lot about the piece, and it’s going to be full of energy.” The tour will be a fitting tribute to Canada — and four of its powerhouses in classical music.

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Hear the world premiere of Alexina Louie’s Triple Concerto for Three Violins and Orchestra, on Sept. 27 & 28 at 8 p.m. — Roy Thomson Hall. Full details here.

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Jennifer Liu

Jennifer Liu

Jennifer holds a master's degree in piano performance and is pursuing her degree in journalism at Carleton University. Previously, she lived for the classic in Toronto and Montreal.
Jennifer Liu
Jennifer Liu

Jennifer Liu

Jennifer holds a master's degree in piano performance and is pursuing her degree in journalism at Carleton University. Previously, she lived for the classic in Toronto and Montreal.
Jennifer Liu
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