Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Adams, Nicole Lizée, and Elgar

Slick Sunset
photo by Louis Helbig from his series Beautiful Destruction
Muskeg River Mine, Fort McKay, Alberta

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Adams: Grand Pianola Music
Nicole Lizée: La terre a des maux
Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme Op.36 (Enigma Variations)

Samian (rapper)
Lisa Dolinsky, Rachel Majorowicz, Jennifer McMillan (singers)
Michael Massey and Jeremy Spurgeon (pianos)

Conducted by Alexander Prior


Dreams of Steinway pianos hurtling down Interstate Route 5, visions of the earth crying out in pain, and affectionate portraits of a composer’s friends – this was the unexpected mix in one of conductor Alexander Prior and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s most successful recent concerts, in the Winspear on Friday (November 29, repeated on Saturday November 30) .

It confirmed the great strides the orchestra has made. It confirmed that, yes, Edmonton audiences can take modern music alongside the old. And it confirmed that if you program imaginative contemporary works, you get a really healthy mix of younger generations in and among the regular audience of older patrons. It’s concerts like these that get new listeners coming to live classical music.

It opened with one of John Adams’ most powerful works, the 1981 Grand Pianola Music, inspired by a dream of seeing two limousines morph into two Steinway pianos on Interstate 5, which runs all the way up the US West Coast to the Canadian border. The ESO’s Assistant Principal double-bass, Maximilian Mauricio-Cardilli, introduced the work, and one could see his point when he said the music was like driving through the Rockies.

Indeed, there is something about the piece and the way it unfurls that recalls those road-trip poems of the West Coast beat poets, but even more – for all its minimalist modernism – there is something of the heritage of Ives about it. It’s there in some of the textures, in the way Adams utilizes popular elements just as Ives did, but in a contemporary context. The use of the three singers, like back-up singers in a soul group, makes such a link, as does the grand tune that seems so familiar (but is original) that emerges in Part II.

Adams is one of Prior’s favourite composers, and his approach to the piece was typical of his conducting style and concerns: an emphasis on coaxing very clear textures from the orchestra (this is one of his great strengths, and was evident throughout the concert), and a thoughtful and considered unfolding of the structure of the piece.

The very measured control of the opening extended crescendo exemplified this, and the whole of part one was notable for its detail of colour: the slow section of Part One really benefited, and was mesmerizingly beautiful and moving.

The downside was that ‘grand’ of the title became slightly subdued – this was a more nuanced interpretation than, say, Adams’ own more robust approach in his recording. The principal reason was, I think, that the two pianos, played by Jeremy Spurgeon and Michael Massey, were simply not loud enough. Placed in the centre of the orchestra, with no lids to direct the sound, they too often got lost, and so the sense of the music being built around them got lost, too.

I don’t want to exaggerate this – this was a performance that clearly deeply affected the audience, and one where Prior’s interpretation decisions were fully justified. However, the flaw in the performance of the work that followed, La terre a des maux (‘The Earth has Evils’), by the Canadian composer Nicole Lizée, was more serious.

A major component of the work is a rap performance by the Algonquin-Québecois rapper Samian, with words in Algonquin and French. Unfortunately, there were not only no texts, but absolutely nothing in the program to inform the audience what those words were about. Samian himself asked the audience how many spoke French: it was a decided minority, and it was unlikely that anyone spoke Algonquin.

Prior then asked Samian what the work was about, but all we got is that the text was about the earth talking to us, and was divided into four sections, earth, fire, wind, and water. That was simply not enough for a 31 minute spoken word rap, and the fact that much of the audience had no idea what was going on was a huge and unnecessary failing in this performance.

Lizée’s own otherwise interesting and informative program note didn’t help, for, apart from the general idea of a broken environment, there seemed to be no connection to the little that Samian had given us in his on-stage introduction.

Nicole Lizée with AKAI 4000DS MkII reel-to-reel tape recorder
photo Canadian Music Centre

From what I can piece together – and I cannot find any version of the text, in the original languages, or otherwise – Lizée wrote the music first. That music is inspired by the idea of vinyl LP turntables, and all the mixture of additive sounds vinyl sometimes produce in and among the music being played- hiss and pops and cracks, variations in pitch from a warped record, and so on. At the same time, she sees the turntable as, one suspects, a kind of noble machine, whose wanton destruction when the LP age came to an end is emblematic of the earth in a kind of mechanical trouble, “broken and malfunctioning”.

Samian then added the words, using a structure of the four elements. He has had this to say about his approach, in an interview with La Presse:

“The human being is at once the most intelligent and the most devastating beast on earth. This ferocious beast forgets how much it depends on the elements that make up its habitat. If these elements could speak, they might tell him what I wrote through these four different themes. “

The extraordinary thing about this work – and this performance – is that, although there was no way we could get the full impact without some knowledge of what was being rapped, it confirmed that in Nicole Lizée Canada has a composer of prodigious abilities and a completely distinctive voice. Indeed, if she imagined her music as being the backtrack to Samian’s rap, exactly the opposite happened if one didn’t know the meaning of the words. The rap because a kind of percussive verbal element to back the music, especially when Samian went into the much more rhythmically musical Algonquin.

And what music it is! The textures are extraordinarily dense – indeed, much of the time it seemed as if most of the orchestra was playing – and unfurl in a succession of shorter phases of texture, if that’s the right word. It’s all held together by a constant and almost miraculous underlying sense of rhythm, or rather rhythms, all of which seemed to revolve around that sense of the turntable spinning around, in all sorts of different guises and shapes and speeds.

It might seem a world spinning in chaos, but if that surface sounds chaotic, one quickly realizes the underlying currents are far from chaos, broken though they may be, exemplified by a marvellous moment where brass sounds almost literally seem to spiral off the spinning surface.

It’s not a work that – text or no text – one can fully grasp on a single listening, and I do hope someone records it soon, so that we can not only again experience its mastery of orchestral writing, but be able to understand and unravel it more. In the meantime, I suspect that Prior – with his talent for nudging out strands and textures in the orchestra, is an ideal conductor for the work. Certainly the ESO responded magnificently, and the amount of work the percussionists in particular must have put in – they are playing very complex parts almost continuously- beggars the imagination.

Prior had heard the first performance, given by the Montreal Symphony, and was determined to bring the work to Edmonton. I am very glad both that he did, and that the management and the orchestra backed the decision to program a work by a composer so unfamiliar to Edmonton audiences, and one with the unlikely addition of orchestral rap. It’s too early to say whether the piece is indeed a masterpiece – and one would need the text – but it certainly has the elements of it.

The concert ended with Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This was another fascinating and enjoyable performance, a thoughtful, almost laid-back interpretation, sometimes ruminative, sometimes going for a chamber-like sound, that again contrasted with more robust approaches, but had its own rewards. Only perhaps in the finale did it stumble a little – Prior let it rip, but that rather contrasted with the more laid-back interpretation of what had gone before, instead of culminating it.

Prior got a very Elgarian sound from the orchestra, rich in colour and timbre (the words ‘gnarled walnut’ came to mind for the colours) and with just the right touch of nostalgia and almost regret – such an Elgar component – when needed. Some of the more Tchaikovskian moments (Dorabella, for example), could perhaps have had a little more sparkle, but Principal Cellist Rafael Hoekman’s little solos in the twelfth variation (B.G.N.) were as moving as I have ever heard them.

Highlights were the incisive seventh variation (Troyte), and a beautifully ghostly and mysterious thirteenth variation (Romanza ***). Notable, too was Nimrod, opening slow and restrained, with clear rich colours, under-emphasizing the first swelling climax, but leaving almost everything to that brief explosive moment at the end before subsiding again.

That may have had the effect of seeming very slow, but was in fact no slower than, say, Boult’s famous interpretations. It was, though, something of an alternative approach to such a famous piece, and, as seems to be happening quite often when Prior rethinks well known-works, produced its own thoughtful beauties, as did the whole performance.

All in all, words or no words, one of those concerts that one is glad to have been at.

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