Most people in the Toronto opera world know Dean Burry principally as a composer of operas for children. He’s written several and a couple have been mainstays of COC school tours. It’s perhaps understandable then if his music is seen as approachable and maybe, even (sotto voce), a little unsophisticated. Last night, a recital of Dean’s works in Victoria College Chapel; part of his DMA program at UoT, provided a chance to hear a number of works in a much broader range of styles.
The concert kicked off with Tussah Heera playing InPerfections for solo piano. It’s a fully serial piece with the tone rows based on the DNA sequences of various hereditary diseases. It’s quite striking and way more than a just a theory exercise. The same could be said for Three Caprices for solo violin played by Dean’s partner Julia McFarlane. These used a range of extended violin techniques to good effect.
The Dreaming Aria from Dean’s latest opera; The Bells of Baddeck, sung by Geoff Sirett, was perhaps closer to expected Burry territory but it wasn’t cloying at all and went some way towards making me want to hear the whole thing which wasn’t how I felt about the previous excerpt I had heard which was a bit too overtly sentimental for my taste. This was drier and more reflective with a bit of an edge.
Dream-Song for soprano and violin (Kristina Bijelic and Julia McFarlane) to a text by Walter De La Mare, was a commission for Cheryl Campbell’s CD designed for premature babies. No hard edges here but a kind of dreamy, hypnotic mood coupled with a rather high tessitura. I’m not the target audience!
Dean carries his Newfoundlandness lightly in Tempest in a Teacup, composed for a Chinese/Canadian composition competition, he plays with perhaps the one thing that unites China and his native province; a love of tea. Here Susan Hoeppner’s flute playing was accompanied by Beverley Johnson making use of the percussive potential of tea cups, a tea tray and kettle. This may be the first piece I’ve heard that includes a hot plate in the instrumentation. Fun!
After the interval we got the big piece of the night; a setting of Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman for mezzo soprano, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, cello and piano. It’s a tuppenny shocker of a tale as one might expect; think a gorier version of Jamaica Inn. Musically it’s quite varied with some parts obviously inspired by Pierrot Lunaire with short, intense sections while at other times it becomes more programmatic which in turn produces a range of styles and moods from overwrought to lyrical. At the denouement it drops, effectively, into speech. The accompaniment makes full use of the small band with the piccolo doing duty as a fife and some effective use of bass clarinet. It got a committed and convincing performance from Krisztina Szabó and the Talisker Players with Bill Rowson conducting.
There are quite a few opportunities to hear more of Dean’s music over the next few months. Doug MacNaughton is premiering Tinfoil Mobile for guitar and baritone as part of his lunchtime concert in the RBA on February 16th. The Talisker Players are reprising The Highwayman at Trinity St. Paul’s as part of a show on May 3rd and 4th and Dean has two new children’s operas; The Sword in the Schoolyard which will be performed by VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto at the Daniels Spectrum on June 2nd to 5th and The Hobbit, this year’s CCOC show, which plays at Harbourfront Centre on June 9th to 12th.