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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

PRIMER | A Look Inside Esprit Orchestra’s Upcoming Electric & Eclectic Concert

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on February 19, 2020

Violinists Marie Bérard and Stephen Sitarski, percussionist Ryan Scott, pianist Stephen Clarke and composer  James O’Callaghan talk about Schnittke, polystylism, and much more leading up to the February 26 concert. 

Esprit Orchestra (Photo : Malcolm Cook)
Esprit Orchestra (Photo : Malcolm Cook)

Esprit Orchestra’s upcoming Electric & Eclectic, presents three works, two by living composers John Adams and James O’Callaghan, and one by Alfred Schnittke, his Concerto Grosso No.1, a polystylistic triple concerto, and one of the seminal works of post-modernism.

It’s a mystery why and how Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) remains only a minor figure in the world of classical music. He lived through the midst of the 20th century, where so many things became available to the general public for the very first time, from the past (historic research and publication), present (advancement of media through radio and television), and the unprecedented projection into the future (space projects, nuclear power, antibiotics). Schnittke’s mix of E (Ernstmusik, serious music) and U (Unterhaltung, music for entertainment), described as polystylism, is the closest thing we have to our own daily lives in 2020, where geography, culture and time are consumed freely, often with no need for a liaison.

“Contemporary music, classical music, Baroque music, all of it is just music and makes us feel things,” Marie Bérard says. Marie first performed this Schnittke with Carol Fujino, Stephen Clarke, and the former Composers’ Orchestra led by Gary Kulesha in 1994, and as a founding member of the Esprit Orchestra in the early 1980s. Marie is excited to be performing it once again with Esprit. The term Concerto Grosso implies an equal division of musical importance across the stage, in this case, for three soloists and the ensemble — true teamwork. As the two violin parts are very similar, this creates “…a kind of extended chamber music experience. We even have at times exactly the same entire passages but a few 1/16-notes apart creating a kind of echo effect, a slightly mad version of Baroque hocketing technique,” says Marie.

Stephen Sitarski has performed a few multi-soloist concerti — including this Schnittke — as the concertmaster at the Banff Centre of Arts a few years ago, in addition to Bach’s Double-Violin Concerto , BWV 1043 and the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello by Brahms. He’s adored this work for a long time. “Ever since I acquired a recording of the Schnittke (Gidon Kremer and Tatiana Grindenko) back in the early 1990s, I’ve loved this work. Then I discovered and listened to a whole bunch more of his music.”

As Esprit’s concertmaster, Stephen is keenly aware of the new music challenge. “As in any other musical era, we don’t always know which pieces will be considered great, or just good, or even not good. But it is imperative that the voices of today’s composers are heard. Art of any kind usually reflects the contemporaneous state of the creator and his/her world. It is important to note that music by Beethoven was severely criticized during his life and over time we have recognized his awesome genius.”

Stephen Clarke (Photo : Malcolm Cook)Stephen Clarke expresses a parallel view. “New music is the whole point of making music. As the current paradigm for those who love classical music is to make music from 200-300 years ago a priority, remember that Mozart and Beethoven were not obsessed with Guillaume Dufay, Ockeghem and Machaut,” he says. Well-known for his dedication to contemporary music in Toronto and internationally, Stephen is the third soloist of the Concerto Grosso No. 1, playing both prepared piano and harpsichord.

Returning to the work for the second time since 1994, Clarke is taken by the duality that exists in this work. “Schnittke’s music is bi-polar, as was he. There is devastating depression, humour and ecstasy in the same piece, and not necessarily in that order.” The mix of old and new is part of the equation. “Having Baroque reference alongside popular reference, the tango, is Schnittke’s post-modernist belief that all material is equally valid, given the right context,” Stephen points out.

For Sitarski, the mix of two instruments for the keyboard part is an important focus for the work. “… the keyboard player switches from a harpsichord (the workhorse instrument of the Baroque era — and hence the piece’s title reference) and a regular grand piano that has pieces of metal stuck into the strings. This creates a completely different and very creepy sound which, in my opinion, sets the whole tone for the piece.”

This could be that work that is mysteriously familiar: Schnittke expressed everything between elating joy and the sadness of life — from his grandmother’s favourite tango, film scores, children’s songs and a heartfelt serenade, all into a mixed bag. What would you find in this narrative?

John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony (2007), is closely related to his earlier work, the 1992 Chamber Symphony, which was inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s Op. 9. Since its premiere, SCS has been praised for its rhythmic vitality (it has a dance version, Joyride, choreographed by Mark Morris). Its comic twist is quite real. On March 31, 1913, Schoenberg conducted his own work at the Skandalkonzert, (“scandal concert”), which ended in a full riot, including physical altercation, and left the last piece on the program, Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, unperformed.

Ryan Scott, principal percussionist of Esprit, is at the heart of the rhythmic drive. “Adams’ percussion writing is occasionally rhythmic and repetitive when he wishes to use the percussion section to propel the orchestra forward, and he often does this with wood sounds, like from a wood block, which is something everyone can hear,” says Ryan. Though, becoming the literal metronome for the orchestra came with a real challenge. “Adams asks for specific pitches for these instruments, which are quite challenging to find. I have been trying to locate two temple blocks (a type of Eastern woodblock) pitched C5 and G6 — so far I have found two C6s!”

For the layman, SCS’s scoring from Boosey & Hawkes looks like an enigmatic message:

1(=picc).1.1.bcl.1-1.1.1.0-perc(2):chimes/kybd sampler(or high thunder sheet)/3 bongos/conga dr/clave/susp.cym/cowbell;kybd sampler/glsp/temple bl/cast/3bongos/conga dr/clave/wdbl/hi-hat cym/susp.cym/cowbell/3 low tom-t/pedal BD-pft(=cel or kybd sampler)-strings(1.1.1.1.1)
This work requires additional technological components and/or amplification.

But, for Ryan this is only a part of the puzzle in preparation for the performance. We often walk in on the evening of a show to see a neat pile of interesting things at the back of the orchestra, especially in post-Romantic works. Then as things start to fly-by in concerts, audiences don’t often get a chance even to recognize the sound they hear, never mind to identify what the mysterious object was. It’s jokingly said that percussionists are first ones to arrive, and the last ones to leave — the sheer amount of logistics is staggering. “As principal, every project and concert requires hours of preparation to create lists of gear for each work and for each colleague percussionist, and then a master list of gear and instruments (often hundreds per concert).” Ryan sees being a percussionist as a lifestyle. “I need a large space to work, and lots of storage for cases, and I require at least one large vehicle.”

Stephen Clarke
Stephen Clarke (Photo: Malcolm Cook)

Working with Esprit, where the rehearsal space is different from the concert venue (Koerner Hall), the lack of a home base where equipment and instruments can be stored means that Ryan’s always ‘on tour’. “All the percussion instruments need to be ordered, moved, set up, packed, moved again, then to the venue, then home and stored properly ad infinitum. On the break we set for the next work. There is no break in the percussion section… if an item is missing, we waste minutes of rehearsal time, which is money better spent of the music. We can’t go backstage and get an instrument we forgot.” And people have noticed. “I have been asked if I wished I played the flute several hundred times,” says Ryan.

Ryan made further comments in illustration of this magical world.

“There are three other things that rarely occur to most people about percussion:

1) Notation systems: For percussion, they are often different for every work. A middle C can mean 10 different things in any concert. The only true benefit to this is, musicians in general are constantly reconstructing neural networks, perhaps more so than in most other professions, and in addition to that, percussionists are absolutely learning new skills for every work. Very often, our middle C is is perfectly random. It’s pretty good for the brain.

2) With the exception of hand drums, we mostly don’t touch our instruments. We rely on a sixth sense of space and time, particularly when playing a 10 foot long 5 octave marimba (particularly if you play in a darkly lit pit with a conductor raised high over the music stand). I own several hundred mallets and about 90% of the time I use the same 50, but I keep the rest for the moment they are required. Mallets to a percussionist are like brushes to a painter.

3) All the sounds we don’t make: We are literally surrounded by things that vibrate loudly if you touch them. To me that’s like dark matter in the universe. At any given second, with a little bump, a sonic disaster will occur. Percussionists move carefully all the time. It all comes down to choreography. We move fast and accurately. And we plan everything in advance including every page turn on every music stand.”

Adams’ SCS promises to be a feast for the eyes and the ears, to watch such a mixture of sound being played as the heartbeat of music — a great chance to find new things, as Adams’ work in three movements presents pulse, in its regularity, serenity and interruptions.

The middle selection, James O’Callaghan’s Not non-other (World Premiere) ‘situates a single microphone in a concerto position in front of the orchestra, which is recorded, amplified, and manipulated electronically through a multi-channel sound system,’ according to Esprit Orchestra’s media release.

When Alex Pauk (Esprit Music Director) put together this program, his intention was, “to include works on the concert showing application of electricity in one way or another in every piece.” So, Alex chose Schnittke (for amplification of prepared piano and harpsichord), Adams (use of keyboard samplers played by percussionists), and commissioned this new work, “which uses electricity for transforming orchestral sound, immersing it in electroacoustic spatiality.”

With the intention of creating a new work with multichannel electronics and orchestra, Alex and James first looked into the foyer of the Museum of Contemporary Art. “It’s a rather long, rectangular space, so I was starting to think about distance as a theme for the work: echoes and the way sound travels through space. The first idea for the work in this space would have been to have the electronics and the orchestra completely bifurcated: two ‘orchestras,’ one of instruments, one of speakers. I liked the idea of sound bouncing back and forth from an acoustic source to an electroacoustic response, so the idea of placing a microphone in between the two sound-sources as a means to get them to communicate came rather immediately,” says James.

In Koerner Hall, the work will be featured through eight channels of sound. The speakers will be arranged in a ring, creating a different sound quality based on their direction and distance.

“So, the setup allows for a play between sounds being closer or farther away. When all the sound is coming from the stage, I feel that it can be easy to ‘other’ it, to turn one’s focus away from the self, which is one of the beauties of concert music and the stage setup; that kind of surrender. When sound is much closer, I find it can have an immersive quality which can lead to an inward turn; one senses that they are part of the sound — it can become perhaps more interior or part of oneself.

It can be intimidating to be surrounded by speakers; it ‘reads’ as a lot of sound. Having so many can also allow for a delicacy and intimacy, however, which is my aim for most of the multichannel diffusion — more speakers means that the sound can be closer, and therefore also quieter, in its voyage toward the ears,” James says.

Though we delight in progress — especially of technology and food — there are times when we hesitate when faced with contemporaries, especially in arts. It’s an interesting conundrum, as we would be the closest and most familiar with our own contemporaries — persons who live at the same time with another, the term new music is read with furrowed brow, with even a slight whiff of stress.

But how many of our fears are constructed in our minds? And are certain things worthy of fearing? The only way to find out is… to come out. What will you find?

Esprit Orchestra presents Electric & Eclectic, Wednesday, February 26, 2020, 8pm, Koerner Hall.

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Hye Won Cecilia Lee

Cecilia tumbled into 'serious' music study when she decided to avoid attending medical school. Currently working in the field of classical music, recording, and Korean-English interpretation, she tends to get her nose dirty in many different things in the city. Cecilia holds a DMA in Piano Performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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Hye Won Cecilia Lee

Cecilia tumbled into 'serious' music study when she decided to avoid attending medical school. Currently working in the field of classical music, recording, and Korean-English interpretation, she tends to get her nose dirty in many different things in the city. Cecilia holds a DMA in Piano Performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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