Sea Variations

This year’s Canadian Art Song Project commission is a setting of poems by EJ Pratt by Dean Burry entitled Sea Variations.  It was given its first performance yesterday in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre by Michael Colvin and Stephen Philcox.  The texts all deal with the moods of the sea and seem curiously archaic for the 1920s when they were written.  They are much more reminiscent of, say, Matthew Arnold than Yeats, let alone Eliot.  They have a certain power though and anybody who knows the North Atlantic will easily appreciate why they might appeal to fellow Newfoundlander Burry.

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The settings are bold and dramatic, operatic even.  The seven poems deal with the various moods of the sea though with the emphasis on its violent side and that is reflected in the music.  What I really like about the piece was that the vocal writing was as interesting as the piano part which is surprisingly rare in contemporary song.  There are even passages where the vocalist is supported minimally or not all. This, unsurprisingly, doesn’t make for an easy sing and Colvin’s command of text and music was exemplary.  Curiously, a couple of times I found myself thinking that at certain points the setting of the words was reminiscent of Britten.  “Curiously” because the music doesn’t sound anything like Britten.  Although maybe the piano part didn’t take centre stage here it was far from straightforward and was played with complete conviction by Philcox.  In any event it’s a substantial piece and another extremely worthwhile addition to the canon of Canadian Art Song.  CASP is delivering what it says on the box.

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The Burry piece was preceded by four songs by last year’s CASP commissionee Jeffrey Ryan.  The first song came out of the Regents Park Music School and sets words by young Toronto poet Mustafa Ahmed.  The other three, more substantial, pieces set poems by Helen Hunt Jackson.  Although all three pieces have quite different moods they shared certain musical qualities.  The piano part is dense and quite chromatic and throughout there’s a kind of shimmering energy that is quite engaging.  The singer was soprano Alexandra Smither who coped well with some pretty demanding music.  Stephen Philcox was, as ever, unfazed by the complexity and density of the piano part.

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Photo credits: Chris Hutcheson

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