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SCRUTINY | Esprit Orchestra At Koerner Hall: Ligeti 2, Richter No Score

By Arthur Kaptainis on April 1, 2024

L-R: Violinist Mark Fewer (Photo courtesy of Leaf Music); Esprit Orchestra (Photo courtesy of Esprit Orchestra); Composer György Sándor Ligeti  (Photo courtesy of Esprit Orchestra)
L-R: Violinist Mark Fewer (Photo courtesy of Leaf Music); Esprit Orchestra (Photo courtesy of Esprit Orchestra); Composer György Sándor Ligeti  (Photo courtesy of Esprit Orchestra)

Esprit Orchestra. Violinissimo II. Max Richter: The Four Seasons Recomposed (Mark Fewer, violin). Ligeti: Continuum (Wesley Shen, harpsichord). Ligeti: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (Mark Fewer, soloist). Alex Pauk, conductor. Koerner Hall on March 28, 2024.

Alex Pauk and his Esprit Orchestra can be relied on to keep the avant-garde faith. Some of the time. Thursday evening in Koerner Hall they proved true to the calling after intermission, with the invaluable assistance of the violinist Mark Fewer.

Occupying the first half of this concert titled Violinissimo II was The Four Seasons Recomposed by Max Richter, a post-minimalist (or post-something-or-other) British composer whose ambient exploits include an eight-hour work meant to be heard while you sleep.

His 2012 reworking of Vivaldi’s famous suite of violin concertos is not so ambitious — constructed, as it is, mostly of repetitive extensions of the source material with occasional rhythmic hiccups. The program notes spoke of electronics. None materialized. There were, however, drones in the lower strings with harp onsets that sounded electronic.

Recomposed? More like reupholstered, except in the middle movement of Winter, which was stripped bare. Reharmonized? Forget about it. Richter gives no indication of knowing more than the basics. Fewer and the orchestra under Pauk played well, but their stalwart efforts served mainly to remind us of the superior force and clarity of the masterpiece Richter has presumed to modify.

Then came György Ligeti — to the rescue. The centenary of the late Hungarian master last year inspired various tributes, here and abroad. By programming the five-movement, half-hour Concerto for Violin and Orchestra after the birthday party was over, Fewer and Pauk in effect affirmed its repertoire status.

Written for an orchestra of 26, this score offers a potpourri of sonorities and rhythms. Instruments are out of tune almost as often as in. Wind players double on ocarinas. There are evocations of Hungarian folk music and the Renaissance as well as bursts of hardcore modernism.

Somehow the motley elements cohere, with the soloist as a binding agent. Whether pumping out the semiquavers of the opening movement or flying high at the beginning of the Passacaglia, Fewer was equal to the technical demands of the music and true to its adventuresome spirit. He also supplied his own cadenza. There were many fine contributions from the orchestra, duly overseen by Pauk. This was a joint success.

Before the concerto we heard Ligeti’s Continuum, a pulsing four-minute toccata for solo harpsichord that achieves the effect promised by its title through rapid repetition. Wesley Shen was the suitably determined and fleet-fingered performer.

There were cheers for everyone, but especially Fewer. Presumably his students at U of T helped fill the parterre. The next Esprit concert, on April 25, matches John Adams’s Harmonielehre (1985) with R. Murray Schafer’s Adieu Robert Schumann (1976), the latter featuring mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo.

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Arthur Kaptainis
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