Tanya Tagaq at the TSO

Last night saw the opening concert of the TSO’s New Creations Festival.  It opened with a sesquie by Andrew Staniland; Reflections on “O Canada” After Truth and Reconciliation.  Sesquies are two minute “fanfares” composed to commemorate Canada’s 150th.  Staniland’s version was a bold attempt to deal with the immensely complex subject of reconciliation between Canada and its native peoples and, of course, one can’t do that in two minutes in any medium.  Reflections was an interesting stab though.  It was structured as a very quiet canon for high strings in a minor key using the principal theme of O Canada and ending with an overblown fanfare in the winds.  You can apply your own political interpretation.


The second piece was Jörg Widmann’s Trauermarsch for piano and orchestra.  It’s an extended series of variations on a funeral march theme.  It’s very modern, very German and very cerebral.  It was well executed by pianist Yefim Bronfman, Peter Oundjian and the orchestra.  Then it was intermission time which seemed a bit odd after only 27 minutes of music and with only half an hour or so to go but as seems to often be the case at the Symphony there had been much time taken up with mutually back-slapping speeches, grovelling to the Arts Councils and the like, and there was more to come, so maybe we did need a break.

Part two opened with an atmospheric piece by Jordan Pal called Iris.  It’s a tone poem on the theme of “iridescence” and was atmospheric and colourful using the full orchestral palette and a large percussion section included a giant sheet of steel.  It made for ten minutes of light relief in an otherwise rather heavy programme.

And so to the main event and the reason I was there; Inuit superstar throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s debut with the TSO in a new commission; Qiksaaktuq.  That’s the Inuktitut word for grief and the piece was dedicated to missing and murdered aboriginal women.  The piece itself was also, apparently, structured around the five stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief, though I’m not sure I could tell that from the work.

The work combines three elements; Tagaq improvising, an orchestral score by Jean Martin and Christopher Mayo, conducted by André de Ridder, plus Christine Duncan cueing the brass section in the manner of her Element Choir.  It was an extraordinary experience and deeply moving but I can’t help wondering if that would not have been equally true if we had just been faced with Tagaq and an otherwise empty stage.  The sounds she makes are visceral and haunting.  They upset every notion one might have about what music is and they convey emotion in an extraordinary way.  The rest, I just don’t know.  Despite knowing I would have to sit down at some point and write about it I’m not sure I actually processed anything other than Tagaq.

So there we go.  Bold programming indeed including three world and one Canadian premiere.  An extraordinary performance by Tagaq.  And an attempt to deal in music with the most difficult and intractable problem in Canadian politics.


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