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Concert review: Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Emanuel Ax at their very best
By John Terauds
On November 6, 2013 Great music well played. Those four simple words sum up a programme of complex, masterful musicmaking by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, music director Peter Oundjian and pianist Emanuel Ax at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday. This was one of those blue-chip concerts, with top-drawer compositions getting first-rate performances. But there were a couple of pleasant surprises that were the equivalent of a surprise increase in the dividend payout. The biggest smile — and ideal metaphor for the innate goodness of this night — came at the very end, when Ax gave in to the prolonged standing ovation to deliver an encore. He sat down on the piano bench, turned to the audience, and announced that he would play with Toronto Symphony principal cellist Joseph Johnson, who had enjoyed a gorgeous solo moment during the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms. In doing so, Ax completely turned the musical tables, becoming the accompanist to Johnson’s solo voice in Robert Schumann’s Op. 73 Fantasiestücke. That they both played from memory and with unity of purpose further underlined the depth of musical commitment being demonstrated on stage all evening. It was also a way for Ax to show off his ability to switch dramatic personalities, from a largely extroverted, boisterous interpretation of the Brahms piece, impeccably accompanied by Oundjian and his orchestra, to something more intimate. The pianist made the music sound and look fun and easy, when it really is anything but.
Wednesday’s concert had started off on the right foot with a crisp, clean, light and bright interpretation of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, one of the works he wrote for his legions of fans in London, England in the early 1790s. This the (wrongly named) “Miracle” Symphony is one of his finest, just as the concerto is one of Brahms’ notable masterworks. Both men, living a century apart, were seasoned professionals at the top of their craft when they wrote these pieces.
Could it be something as insignificant as coincidence that Toronto composer Gary Kulesha wrote his Third Symphony at the same time of life? Commissioned and premiered by the National Arts Centre Orchestra in 2007, the Third Symphony has to be one of the finest pieces of Canadian symphonic writing ever produced — and that’s not intended as faint praise. Oundjian knows this; how else could he have programmed it against two Germanic titans of centuries afore? Kulesha’s three-movement handiwork, structured like a classical symphony, really does stand up to the greats. The slow middle movement is its finest, blending a recognizable melody (impressively rendered by associate principal oboe Keith Atkinson) with harmonies and textures that were familiar yet novel. Only the final movement lacked a bit of critical mass, perhaps due to the lack of brass. Nonetheless, if there is a piece of early-21st century Canadian symphonic music being played in the distant future, Kulesha’s Symphony has a fighting chance to be it. And, as has been the case for much of the past three seasons, the orchestra sounded fantastic, especially in the quiet work. John Terauds
SEATTLE WEEKLY Seattle Chamber Music Society: Resistant to Conventional Wisdom By Gavin Borchert
Sat., Jul. 21 2012 at 6:29 PM
Composer Gary Kulesha draws from a full musical palette. Seattle Chamber Music Society Benaroya Recital Hall, Friday For me, the highlight of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer season is the now-traditional premiere: a brand-new work paid for by the SCMS Commissioning Club, a consortium of patrons who pool their funds. This summer the nod went to Toronto composer Gary Kulesha. He and four musicians–violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Marcus Thompson, cellist Efe Baltacigil, and pianist Orion Weiss–previewed his Piano Quartet before Friday’s concert, breaking it down and discussing its combination of traditional form (four movements, in the template Haydn and Mozart established) and modernistic idioms. This is emblematic of Kulesha’s gratifyingly non-doctrinaire approach, open to the limitless possibilities of 21st-century composition (“I tried to emulate everything I’ve ever listened to,” he said) and resistant to conventional wisdom and its labels (“I don’t think in terms of tonal or atonal anymore,” he said of his approach to harmony). “Eclectic,” though, would be the wrong word to describe Kulesha’s quartet–it implies a sort of patchwork approach, whereas the composer was impressively expert at melding any method or device he chose into a convincingly personal whole. For example, there was the very beginning, a sweeping but angular passage for strings with piano punctuation: Kulesha combines ragtime rhythms (syncopations over the middle of the bar) and jazz harmonies (fistfuls of seventh chords) in music that sounds nothing like either. His use of quarter-tones–sliding and bending the pitch slightly up and down–not only doesn’t halt the movement’s striding energy, it adds to the music’s captivating sense of swing and sway, a propulsion both harmonic and rhythmic. After all this vigor, the ending is an effective surprise: the music dissolves, crumbles apart, in glassy, fragmented whispers from the three strings. There’s another startling effect at the beginning of the second movement, titled “Meditation”: chords on the viola and cello, played coolly and without vibrato, sounding like a reedy, wheezing harmonium. Over this, a violin melody develops into a dialogue with the piano, which takes over to establish a more glowering, angsty mood. This relaxes into an emptier, starker texture; the quarter-tones return in benumbed string lines over a repeated questioning piano gesture. As the fleet third-movement scherzo opens, each beat is subdivided into three–a familiar-sounding 6/8–but later Kulesha plays with other subdivisions, fours and fives, different rhythms layered simultaneously in the strings: sort of a ground-shifting-underneath effect. The finale was seemingly composed according to the principle that an idea worth using once is worth using twice, incorporating the sweep and energy of the beginning; more quarter-tone swaying; more unsettled, layered rhythms; and the biting, two-note Morse Code figures from the opening of the scherzo: da-dit! da-dit! The audience response was fervent and enthusiastic; what we warmed to, I imagine, was not merely the quartet’s beguiling color, wide-ranging imaginativeness, or infectious dash, but the clarity and directness (and non-obscurantism) with which Kulesha deployed and communicated his ideas. The next step now for the SCMS is to establish a tradition of follow-up performances for their successful commissions. The usual one-and-done approach to premieres has been a bugaboo for composers for decades, and if there ever was a piece that deserved to be brought back in an upcoming festival, it’s this one.
***** SEEN-AND-HEARD INTERNATIONAL Seattle Chamber Music Society in Premiere by Gary Kulesha July 23, 2012 United StatesUnited States Debussy, Kulesha, Dvor(ák: various artists, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 20.7.2012 (BJ) Secure in the settled possession of one of the finest violinists now before the public—James Ehnes, formerly a frequent guest, and now artistic director—the Seattle Chamber Music Society concluded this program with the most impressive performance I have heard in years of Dvorák’s F-minor Piano Trio, Op. 65.
Before that, however, the spotlight was trained on a new work commissioned by the SCMS Commissioning Club. This was the Piano Quartet by the 57-year-old Canadian composer Gary Kulesha. First we had a pre-concert spoken introduction by the composer, an articulate and persuasive advocate for his own music, with excerpts from the piece played by violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Marcus Thompson, cellist Efe Baltacigil and pianist Orion Weiss. The concert proper began with a little-known early Piano Trio by Debussy, written at the age of 18—a pleasant if relatively minor piece, to which a fluent performance by Stefan Jackiw on violin, Robert deMaine on cello, and Andrew Armstrong on piano did ample justice. Kulesha’s quartet, which followed, proved to be a charming work. Its style bore out Kulesha’s proclaimed desire, having put modernist techniques behind him, to explore other facets of human and musical expression beyond the Angst that serial and other techniques too often find it difficult to go beyond—or, to put it perhaps tendentiously, to rise above. Played with evident dedication, the work evinced plenty of rhythmic vigor and vivid instrumental color. An idiom somewhere between tonality and what might be called post-tonality also enabled the composer to establish an often compelling sense of harmonic pulse. If the Quartet is to be judged by the highest standards, I would say that it is a shade unadventurous in texture: for too much of its length, it pits unison lines in the strings against chords in the piano. But to write a work that is serious without pomposity and entertaining without frivolity is a worthy achievement, and SCMS’s usual devoted audience clearly enjoyed the result.
The F-minor Trio is one of Dvor(ák’s greatest works, and its quality was comprehensively realized in the passionately committed and searingly beautiful performance that ended the evening. There were richly glinting tones and magisterially projected lines from Ehnes’s violin, supported by Julie Albers’s strong etching of the cello part. At the piano, Adam Neiman played as finely as I have heard him do in many excellent outings for the festival over the last few years, drawing particular brilliance from the composer’s exploitation of the keyboard’s upper registers. Thus music and performance combined to crown one of the most rewarding evenings the Society has achieved this summer.
— Torontonian Gary Kulesha’s mysteriously titled piece, The Confusion of Tongues, another world premiere, had us expecting a cacophony of instruments coming at us from every direction…… The Winnipeg Wind Ensemble was assembled onstage, conducted by Jacqueline Dawson. The WSO winds and brass perched on the second balcony with maestro Alexander Mickelthwate visible at the very edge….. Rumbling brass from above achieved an antiphonal effect as clarinets and flutes onstage twittered and conflicting rhythms made a wash of sound, wavelike and complementary. What could have been chaotic turned out be curiously magical. The work built to a thunderous climax that made our skin tingle. Gwenda Nemerofsky Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2011
— Crisp, clean and refined, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Peter Oundjian made a memorable impression in their Sarasota appearance, part of a statewide tour by surely Canada’s finest orchestra. Oundjian opened his program with a new work by another of Canada’s finest, composer Gary Kulesha. “Torque” was a dazzling orchestral showpiece that sizzled and shimmered with the perpetual motion of lines and patterns. Slick and contemporary, the music held a certain fascination with its color and energy. Herald Tribune, January 11, 2011 Gayle Williams
— Concerto for Cello and Orchestra was premiered on Nov. 18 and 20, 2006, with Shauna Rolston and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey. This new work was commissioned for Ms. Rolston by the CBC.
Review from the National Edition of the Globe and Mail:
We are an information -obsessed society, so much so that museum-visitors can spend as much time reading about the work or the artist as they do gazing at the art, progressing through the galleries with audio guides strapped ot their ears while computer kiosks broadcast additional information at the press of a button. It is hardly an ambience that inspires silent, rapt wonder….. ….Especially welcome was Kulesha’s comment associating the genesis of his piece with Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, referring to his concerto…as “an extended journey into a dark place.” Readers of Kulesha’s program notes would have come across standard musical vocabulary as rondo, scherzo, first and second themes, chorale and sarabande– nothing to suggest what was to come. Darkness, in music, often suggest sadness. But here the salient quality was malevolent, and it truly set the piece apart. Kulesha focused on the low and middle registers of the cello, its “speaking voice” as it were, opening with a brutal recitative (an exchange with “tribal” drums), but evolving into a number of keening but constricted melodies…. Textures were dense and sticky, shot with deft timbral grimaces, including double-stopped cello harmonies that are caught up and amplified in the hollow cusp of drum resonance; the sardonic, unison accompaniment of a single percussionist’s clapping that snatches Kulesha’s second “scherzo” movement, with its jigging rhythm and swirling winds, back from the brink of the jocular non-sequitur; the iron and grit of bassoon, the snarl of trumpet, the shrill cry of winds. The most affecting movement was the third, a sarabande with a stumbling ostinato that was somewhat reminiscent of the chaconnes in piano concertos by both Benjamin Britten and Alan Rawsthorne, though certainly more intense. [Shauna] Rolston, who plays a carbon-fibre cello of powerful tone, was in her element here, sustaining a blistering level of passion through fairly minimal melodic activity. Her sound seemed exactly right for the piece, gruff when it needed to be, searing when the lines permitted it, never just pretty and always of commanding presence….
— Third Symphony was premiered by the National Arts Centre Orchestra on May 16-17, 2007, conducted by Roberto Minczuk. This work was commissioned by the NACO as part of their Composer Awards programme. It has been widely broadcast on CBC Radio 2, and is available at their Concert On Demand website. Review:
Kulesha symphony ‘ingenious and attractive’ Richard Todd, Ottawa Citizen Published: Thursday, May 17, 2007 Symphonies have never been a big item in Canadian composition. Healey Willan wrote a pair of them three generations ago, tepid imitations of Elgar. Jacques Hetu has written four and a few other names come to mind. Gary Kulesha, for example. His Third Symphony received its world premiere at the hands of the National Arts Centre Orchestra Wednesday evening. Commissioned by the NACO, it was given under the baton of guest conductor Roberto Minzcuk rather than the orchestra’s music director, Pinchas Zukerman. Though there were some empty seats in the NAC’s Southam Hall – at least a few dozen patrons exchanged their tickets so they could watch the Ottawa Senators playoff game being played across town at Scotiabank Place – they didn’t add up to the “sea of red” that greets so many Canadian works there. In fact, the NACO audience responded with uncommon warmth. But then this is uncommon music. The first and last of its three movements are ingenious and attractive, combining a lightness of touch with a seriousness of purpose. They are complex, but not in ways that tax the average listener unduly. The middle movement was pure loveliness and was played beautifully, especially by the first chair winds. For all its merits, the Kulesha had to contend with a potentially unfortunate bit of programming. It came immediately after Haydn’s Symphony no. 88 in G, one of the finest works in the symphonic repertoire. It might be a stretch to say that the new piece is the equal of the old but, believe it or not, Kulesha got considerably more applause than Haydn. (Of course Haydn didn’t make a personal appearance.)
© The Ottawa Citizen 2007
review of “Mysterium Coniunctionis” (Crossroads, James Campbell, CENTREDISCS CMC-CD 4392) in Fanfare, March/April, 1993
“By far the best [work on the disc] is Gary Kulesha’s Mysterium Coniunctionis, a five-movement, eighteen-minute suite for clarinet, bass, clarinet, and piano. It’s one of the finest contemporary clarinet works I’ve come across…The disc is almost worth buying for this one work.” (Alex Ross)
review of “Romance” for Brass Band (Canadian Impressions, Hannaford Street Silver Band, Stephen Chenette, conductor, CBC SMCD 5136) in Fanfare, January/February 1995
“The performance is exquisite, with a bell-like climax at 3:20 that sounds as if the work has actually arrived somewhere. I usually have to pause to hear this nearly six-minute-long work a few times before continuing with the rest of the disc.” (Randy A. Salas)
review of Concerto for Recorder and Small Orchestra (Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert, Handel, Telemann, Kulesha, and Walton; Michala Petri, soloist, Hugh Wolff, conductor) in The Globe and Mail, Jan. 29, 1994
“…Lucky Toronto Symphony, to have a composer as smart, articulate, and capable as Kulesha to provide it with music. Kulesha’s “Concerto” was the best reason to attend Thursday’s concert…It was simply the most interesting music on the programme.” (Robert Everett Green)
review of Symphony (Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert, Feb. 11, 12, 14, 1998, Jukka Pekka Saraste and Gary Kulesha, conductors) in The Globe andMail, Feb. 13, 1998
“…[a] fantastical gateway…seemed to open out of the texture of the work’s final movement, … through which musical tensions were magically resolved…” (Christopher Reibling)
review of “Sinfonia for Brass Band, Piano, and Harp” (Hannaford Street Silver Band, Bramwell Tovey, condutor) on CBC CD 5188, in American Record Guide, May/June, 1999
“The effect is to form an array of shifting harmonies and effects in an approachable, stunning work…”
review of “The True Colour of the Sky” in the Berlin Morgenpost
“…a well-sounding, hefty, undogmatic thing, easily listenable, full of fantasy and played in the most spirited manner. The applause was respectful and big.” (Klaus Geitel)
review of Symphony (Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey and Michael Hall, conductors):
“Kulesha’s piece was a symphony in the grand tradition…The first two movements were played simulaneously by two squads with different conductors– a risky and remarkably successful move…Certainly the piece should be heard more often, and recorded at once.” (Robert Everett-Green)
mention of “Mysterium Coniunctionis” in “The Cambridge Guide to the Clarinet”:
“Of special note is [James Campbell’s] recording of Gary Kulesha’s ‘Mysterium Coniunctionis’ for clarinet, bass clarinet, and piano, a rewarding work of almost nineteen minutes duration.”
review of National Arts Centre Orchestra performance on their Eastern Tour:
“Gary Kulesha’s ‘Syllables of Unknown Meaning’…illustrated with transparent delicacy how music from even as long ago as 1,000 years, can generate a complexly imagined and brilliantly excecuted palette of sound and texture that is unmistakeably modern.”
review from “Wholenote Magazine” of the new Gryphon Trio CD “Canadian Premieres”:
“Gary Kulesha’s Trio No. 2 is, by contrast, conventional in its approach to questions of form and musical discourse. Brimming with cogent musical argument, dramatic silences and poignant meditative moments, it remains for me the most compelling of these compositions.” (Daniel Foley)