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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

RECORD KEEPING | NAC Orchestra Encounters Bad Program Notes But Good Music

By Paul E. Robinson on March 1, 2018

ENCOUNTERS. Staniland: Phi, Caelestis. Lizée: Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming. Lau: Dark Angels. National Arts Centre Orchestra/Alexander Shelley. Analekta AN2 8871-2 (2 CDs). Total Time: 87:02.
ENCOUNTERS. Staniland: Phi, Caelestis. Lizée: Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming. Lau: Dark Angels. National Arts Centre Orchestra/Alexander Shelley. Analekta AN2 8871-2 (2 CDs). Total Time: 87:02.

Several years ago the National Arts Centre developed a project called Encounters to bring together three composers and three choreographers as part of the commemoration of Canada’s 150th-birthday. The three collaborations, in the form of an evening of one-act ballets, were given their premieres in April, 2017. Ideally, these new dance pieces would have been filmed and released on a DVD, so that one could appreciate how the dancing and music fit together; one assumes that raising the extra money required for filming was the reason this was not done. That said, with this Analekta CD, we at least have three major new musical compositions to consider.

The composers of these pieces have supplied their own notes for these recordings, which — as is often the case — tend toward the pretentious and obscure, throwing dust in our eyes when they should be giving us a way into the music.

Andrew Staniland tells us that the unifying theme of his piece is “the golden ratio, or Phi.” He goes on to say that, “for me, Phi was a catalyst and inspiration both in terms of both extra-musical beauty and literal usage in Phi-inspired melodies and harmonies.” Reading this word salad, I am reminded of the doubletalk that Sid Caesar tossed off so masterfully years ago. Except that he was funny. There is not much fun in either Staniland’s prose or in his music. Phi makes use of minimalist pulsations in the first movement, a sort of homage to Le sacre du printemps in the second movement, and a timpani-driven climax in the last movement. This last movement – titled Eden – also features “electronic sound files created with recordings of poet Jill Battson reading quotes from mathematicians speaking about beauty.” I have no idea what that is all about, especially since the words being spoken are incomprehensible.

Nicole Lizée seems to suffer from the same affliction as Andrew Staniland when it comes to writing about her music — namely, an aversion to writing in plain French (or English):

Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming draws tone and timbre from the neo-noir cinema of the 1980s and 1990s […] in the hyper-stylized way motion and travel scenes are filmed and treated […] romanticized inertia into hyperkinetic neon rage.

This kind of bafflegab was of no use to me before I heard the piece and after listening to it, I still haven’t the faintest idea what she is talking about. This is unfortunate because the piece itself is often beautiful and mesmerizing with lyrical episodes that are fresh and soothing. While Lizée is working with contemporary techniques, including electronics, her music manages to be immediately accessible. The quiet opening, with voices and orchestra, is very effective and she integrates the electronic bleeps and gurgles with real mastery. While much of the piece is rhythmically static, there are also surprises, such as a reminiscence of a Tchaikovsky waltz emerging from the texture.

The ballet score that really got my attention was Kevin Lau’s Dark Angels. Of the three works on this album, Lau’s is the most traditional in the sense that it is tonal, has development of musical ideas and has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A Toronto Symphony Affiliate Composer from 2012 to 2014, Lau has also produced no fewer than 15 film scores. In fact, Dark Angels could be a film score. It has beautiful and evocative melodic ideas, builds to several exciting climaxes, and reflects a masterful command of orchestration. Finally, it is probably the only piece on this album that might have a successful afterlife as a concert piece.

In all three works on this CD, the National Arts Centre Orchestra plays exceptionally well — even better than that in Dark Angels. Cellist Rainer Eudeikis deserves special mention for his fine solo playing in what composer Lau calls “an elegy” towards the middle of Dark Angels.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
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Ludwig Van Toronto

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