The closing concert of this year’s 21C, presented by Soundstreams at Koerner Hall, featured music by Chris Paul Harman and Unsuk Chin. In the first half we heard two related pieces by Harman based on songs by Ray Noble. The first, Love Locked Out started with a tape recorded interview and a scratchy recording of Al Bowlly before morphing into a complex piece with allusions to the original song. It’s not in any sense a set of variations. Harman’s sound world is complex. It’s very modern and varied. There were warring pianos and tubular bells in passages that were almost violent but which morphed into more playful sections. Parts of the string writing and the transitions reminded me of Shostakovich; though Harman tends to genuinely playful rather than sardonic. But the comparison should not be taken too far because there’s also a tendency to build tension and logic through repetition rather than symphonic development in a vaguely John Adamsish sort of way and there are passages that are meditative à la Messiaen. The piece closed with a slowed down tape of the song. So complex and intriguing stuff very well played by 21C Chamber Orchestra conducted by Guillaume Bourgogne.
This was followed by It’s All Forgotten Now. Here the original tune on piano opened the piece to be reprised at the end by piano and orchestra. In between we got more allusive music using recognisably the same palette as the first piece. I think the repeated figure elements were more apparent here and there was not quite the same tension between segments. It was a good piece but I didn’t feel as engaged as I did by Love Locked Out.
After the interval came two pieces by Unsuk Chin. First up was the Caterpillar’s “aria” from Alice in Wonderland. This is actually an extended bass clarinet solo with the words presented otherwisely; here being held up on giant flash cards. This got a spectacular performance from Anthony Thompson complete with three extra pairs of arms! It’s a real test piece. Almost perversely, much of lies very high for bass clarinet though it plumbs the depths too. Lots of fun.
The main piece, Cantatrix Sopranica, closed out the afternoon. It’s a piece in eight sections for two sopranos (Carla Huhtanen and Ghislaine Deschambault) and countertenor (Scott Belluz) plus orchestra. Each section is a sort of self referential commentary on some aspect of singing. For example “warming up” or “Italian baroque”. I found it patchy. While some sections, like the two mentioned, were quite distinct and worked well others blurred into each other and there really wasn’t the definition needed for the concept to fully work. It’s the sort of work that puts great demands on the singers. They have to produce a lot of sounds and styles with accuracy and without any kind of support. It’s the sort of thing Carla does really well and Ghislaine and Scott were equally fine. Overall though I was left with the impression though that this is probably one of those pieces that’s more fun to perform than listen to.