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PREVIEW | Conductor Alex Pauk On Launching Esprit Orchestra’s 40th Season Of New Classical Music

By Anya Wassenberg on October 21, 2022

Conductor & Music Director Alex Pauk with the Esprit Orchestra (Photo: Malcolm Cook)
Conductor & Music Director Alex Pauk with the Esprit Orchestra (Photo: Malcolm Cook)

Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra, devoted to performing, commissioning, and support new classical music, is set to launch their 40th season with a concert on October 27. That kind of longevity is a remarkable achievement for any organization in the classical music world, let alone one focused exclusively on new music.

The numbers, though, aren’t something that Conductor and Music Director Alex Pauk had in mind when he started, or since then. “I just keep going,” he says. “But, other people, they didn’t think it would last,” he adds with a smile.

He’s realistic about the reception for new music in general. There’s a small sliver of the population that listens to classical music, period. “New music is another small sliver down from that,” he says. But, he sees that as motivation. “It’s not only been to provide composers the opportunity to hear their music,” he explains, “but to expand that sliver.”

First and foremost, it’s about live music. “For an audience to be able to appreciate that music, they have to hear it,” he says. Live performance adds a dimension that can’t be duplicated. “It’s so that people hear things in a big perspective,” he says. “And, more than once.”

In fact, the concert includes works that he’s previously conducted with Esprit. “Conducting the second, third time, you learn something new.”

Composers Thomas Adès, Unsuk Chin, Christopher Goddard (Photos courtesy of Esprit Orchestra)
Composers Thomas Adès, Unsuk Chin, Christopher Goddard (Photos courtesy of Esprit Orchestra)

The Concert

The season launch concert on October 27 consists of three works.

  • Unsuk Chin (Korea/Germany): Spira (2019) Concerto for Orchestra
  • Christopher Goddard (Canada): Les tringles des sistres tintaient (2018) for orchestra
  • Thomas Adès (UK): Asyla (1997) for large orchestra

Christopher Goddard’s piece was originally commissioned by Esprit. “This is an interesting work,” he says. “Chris has taken the gypsy’s theme that comes at the end of the second act of Carmen [to create] thematic modules.” Using the theme, well-known even outside the opera world, the composer then transforms it. “It has the swirling effect of tambourines,” he notes, with a tempo that is constantly manipulated. “There is a kind of spiral in the tempi,” he describes. “It’s something he’s taken to show virtuosity in composition. What he’s done with it is new music.”

Pauk says he’s performed most of the works of Unsuk Chin, often for its Canadian premiere. “Her writing is exquisite,” he says, “and sure, and detailed.” A well written piece makes the performance better.

“It’s also a spiral,” he explains, “a different concept in creating spirals in music. It’s not a concerto in a traditional sense.”

Rather than interweaving passages for soloists, as a typical concerto would do, Chin focuses on sounds creating by various sections. “It has to do with showing the orchestra in groupings.” As he describes it, she creates “halos of sound” that are constantly changing.

“It creates a heavenly sound.”

Two vibraphones create one of those clouds of sound using changes in vibrato, a sound that comes in and out of the piece. The strings create another cloud. “She’s portraying the virtuosity of sections of the orchestra.”

Chin plays with repetitions and listeners’ expectations. “It’s a good example of how carefully she’s thought about structure. It makes sense in a sensuous, intuitive way.” She creates an amorphous effect with structure, paradoxically. “It’s so well written, you can do what she asks with precision, but also achieve that amorphous sound.”

He’s also looking forward to conducting Adès work Asyla for large orchestra, another repeat for Pauk. “It’s a difficult piece,” he says.

To begin with, it requires unusual instrumentation which includes two upright pianos – with one pianist playing an upright and a grand, and a second at the upright and a celesta. And – one of the uprights is tuned down a quarter-tone. Percussion includes water gong, two ratchets, a washboard, sandpaper blocks and a bag of metal knives and forks, among other exotica.

“That gives it a lot of colour and spark,” he notes. “You [also] have to find a bass oboe,” he adds. “It has a wonderful sound.”

The piece, written in 1997, offers listeners a shift in moods. “The third movement trips into a kind of nightclub sound,” he explains. “It’s very tricky rhythmically to pull off.” The music isn’t the kind you can show up and sight read, in other words.

“On the one hand, it sounds like a chaotic mess, but if you don’t play it right, it really does sound like a mess.”

* Conductor & Music Director Alex Pauk (Photo: Bo Huang)
* Conductor & Music Director Alex Pauk (Photo: Bo Huang)

Supporting new music

“These are among the best composers in the world,” Pauk underscores. “The sounds are glorious, magnificent.”

To launch the season, the orchestra is at optimum size to deliver the right kind of sound for the program. “For Esprit, this is the largest formation we get to,” he says.

“The experience of these pieces cannot be had listening online or on CD.” To that he adds a unique program. “It’s an opportunity you won’t get otherwise.”

Esprit Orchestra Presents Spira takes place Thursday, October 27, Concert 8:00 p.m. / Pre-Concert Chat at 7:15 p.m.  Koerner Hall. Tickets here.


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