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ClassicsOnline Home » COLGRASS, M.: Dream Dancer / MESSIAEN, O.: Oiseaux exotiques / KUCHARZYK, H.: Some Assembly Required (Northern Winds) (Toronto Wind Orchestra, Gomes)
Northern Winds is an inspirational album featuring a wealth of Canadian talent that highlights imaginative approaches to wind orchestration across various styles by several composers, from Louis Applebaum’s High Spirits for full ensemble to Henry Kucharzyk’s Some Assembly Required whose title wittily refers to his pointillistic/ aleatoric technique. The young featured soloists have already been critically acclaimed, Canadian saxophonist Wallace Halladay as ‘one of Canada’s leading performers of contemporary music’ and Australian-born, Halifax-based pianist Simon Docking for his ‘extraordinarily vivid realizations of contemporary music’.
By David Denton
Contemporary North American music for wind orchestra is here crowned by Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques performed by a gathering of Toronto’s superb wind musicians. Opening with the aptly named overture, High Spirits, from Louis Applebaum—one of the fathers of today’s Canadian music—we move onto the unique sound world of Michael Colgrass, his subtle colours creating Dream Dancer, a fusion of various cultures. Scored for saxophone and transparent textures of a wind ensemble, it is a long and haunting work excellently played by the crossover saxophonist, Wallace Halladay. The three movements of Henry Kurcharzyk’s Some Assembly Required offers an experiment in the freedom of individual expression by performers, the movements to be performed in any order, the prevailing mode being proactive without being aggressive in any sense. From the same musical epoch, Gary Kulesha’s short three-movement, Ensembles, contrasts the slow moving outer movements with a return to tonality in the central hymn-like movement. Of Polish origin, Harry Freedman was the cor anglais in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for twenty-five years, with the last thirty-four years up to his death in 2005 spent exclusively in composing a wide range of music. Laurentian Moods came early in his career and was a compilation of French Canadian Folk Songs derived from Quebec. Easy on the ear and on the performers. The Messiaen essay on bird-song is adeptly handled. The Toronto Wind Orchestra is a very capable and well balanced group that find the technical hurdles easily negotiated. Good sound engineering.
Louis Applebaum (1918–2000): High Spirits
Michael Colgrass (b. 1932): Dream Dancer
Henry Kucharzyk (b. 1953): Some Assembly Required
Gary Kulesha (b. 1954): Ensembles
Harry Freedman (1922–2005): Laurentian Moods
Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992): Oiseaux exotiques
Northern Winds explores the wind ensemble sound world, as heard through the ears of mostly Canadian composers. Two of the pieces on this recording, Louis Applebaum’s High Spirits and Harry Freedman’s Laurentian Moods, are firmly rooted in the world of traditional band music. Their harmonic language is solidly tonal, and the use of rhythm in these works falls within the band music tradition of square, well emphasized beat patterns.
Ensembles by Gary Kulesha begins a sonic transition into a much more contemporary idiom, even though his use of form is still traditional. Kulesha’s harmonic language, especially his use of dissonance, places him firmly in the twentieth century. His use of rhythm to evoke a calm yet subtly changing equlibrium makes this music very different from that of Applebaum or Freedman. In Kulesha’s work, the optimistic forward movement used (and perhaps overused) in so much band music is often brought to a standstill. The music is allowed to reflect.
Henry Kucharzyk’s Some Assembly Required takes this process several steps further with the introduction of aleatoric (improvised) elements, within a looser formal structure. The music alternates between sections based on more-or-less familiar harmonic language, and sections where tone colour, rather than specific harmony or rhythm becomes the organizing principle.
The two remaining works on this recording feature very different but compelling sound worlds. Michael Colgrass’ Dream Dancer proposes the notion of cross cultural sharing, and is explicitly based on the idea of a musician (in this case a saxophone) exploring different musical traditions while trying to determine where they fit in. This is an idea with great currency in today’s multicultural milieu where musical traditions from around the world are unavoidably shared. It is particularly interesting that Colgrass chose to explore this idea in a piece for wind band, an ensemble that is often (incorrectly) assumed to be bound within a very narrow range of tradition.
It is doubtful that Messiaen even thought about adding to the wind ensemble repertoire when he wrote Oiseaux exotiques. The choice of instruments simply suited his needs as he created this piece built largely on bird songs. Whatever the process, the end result is a work that is utterly unlike any other in the wind ensemble repertoire. The piece is extraordinarily difficult for both the solo pianist and the ensemble—the melodic contours are not idiomatic for winds, and the rhythmic challenges are daunting. In fact, the astute listener can enjoy this same complexity any summer morning as the birds wake up and sing their various songs. Messiaen was able to notate these events and build them into this remarkable piece of music.
Although it may seem strange to include Messiaen’s work alongside music by mostly Canadian composers, there is a strong link between Oiseaux exotiques and Canada. Of the birds whose calls are notated in this piece, 38 are from North America, including many that live in Canada. In a very real sense, Oiseaux exotiques carries within it part of the Canadian landscape.
Louis Applebaum (1918–2000) was a prominent Canadian composer, administrator and conductor. Besides concert music, he also composed music for film, theatre, as well as numerous pieces for television and radio. Applebaum also held many important administrative positions throughout his career in key performing arts organizations such as the CBC, and the Stratford Festival, and used his formidable skills to assist composers and music education across Canada. Louis Applebaum’s music is often characterized by an energetic optimism, a trait he shares with many American composers of the same period, including Roy Harris with whom he studied. His band composition High Spirits, written in a traditional “band music” style, was composed in 1986, and had its première the same year at Expo ’86 in Vancouver.
Michael Colgrass (b. 1932) began his musical career as a jazz drummer in his native Chicago. Throughout his career Michael Colgrass has won many prestigious awards including the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Déjà vu, First Prize in the Barlow and Sudler International Wind Ensemble Competitions, and the 1988 Jules Leger Prize for Chamber Music. Following studies at the University of Illinois and two years as timpanist in the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra in Stuttgart, Germany, he spent eleven years supporting his composing activities as a free-lance percussionist in New York City. The wide musical range of his performance experience has had a profound influence on his compositions, including Dream Dancer, composed in 2001. In the preface to the score, Colgrass writes: “Dream Dancer is a fantasy about a musical instrument that feels attracted to various styles of music, trying to decide which one to play”. Throughout this piece, musical influences from the Mideast, Asia and America (especially jazz) play against each other. Of combining these various cultures, Colgrass says “The concept of mixing cultures in music is natural to me living in Toronto, perhaps the world’s most cosmopolitan city, which offers a rich palette of authentic folk music from around the world”.
Henry Kucharzyk (b. 1953) is a Toronto-based composer and conductor, as well as a performer on piano and synthesizer. Through his involvement with contemporary music ensembles such as Arraymusic, the Canadian Electronic Ensemble and the Esprit Orchestra, Kucharzyk has been at the forefront of new music development in Canada. His composition Some Assembly Required was commissioned by the University of Toronto Wind Symphony and completed in 1998. This piece makes extensive use of aleatoric, or improvised elements. The order of the movements can be decided by the performers, and within the individual movements, there are sections that allow considerable room for decisions by individual performers—hence the title “some assembly required”. This compositional approach gives an unusual degree of spontaneity to each performance, and even to recording sessions.
Gary Kulesha (b. 1954) works principally as a composer, though he is also active as a pianist, conductor, and as a teacher. He has been composer in residence to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, was composer-advisor to the Canadian Opera Company, and has enjoyed a lengthy relationship with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. Gary Kulesha is a Senior Lecturer in Composition at the University of Toronto. Though Ensembles was written in 1979, and is thus one of Kulesha’s earlier works, it shows some of the key characteristics that make him such an effective composer: a clear use of musical structure, plus the ability to let stillness and repose be an important part of the piece. In 2007 the Toronto Wind Orchestra commissioned Kulesha to write a major new work for wind ensemble. The Greatness of the New-Found Night received its première performance in November, 2008.
Harry Freedman (1922–2005) was born in Poland, but moved to Canada at the age of three. Initially he enrolled in the Winnipeg School of Art to become a painter, but his love of big band jazz led him to the clarinet. He later switched to oboe, and finally to English horn. He was the English horn player in the Toronto Symphony for 25 years. From 1971 on he worked exclusively as a composer. Harry Freedman composed for a wide range of organizations and needs: symphonic music, chamber music, ballets, film scores and theatre music. Laurentian Moods is a relatively early composition, written in 1957 for the Barrie Collegiate Band in Barrie, Ontario. It uses a series of Quebec folk tunes such as A la claire fontaine and Làbas sur ces montagnes to create a lively and tuneful band work. As with much of Freedman’s music, his lively humour shows through in the unexpected melodic twists and rhythmic surprises.
Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) has been described as “a French composer, organist, and ornithologist”, surely one of the world’s less common occupational descriptions. Following lengthy studies at the Paris Conservatoire he became organist at the church of La Trinité in Paris in 1931, a post he held until his death in 1992. Although he used serial ideas to organize his music, many other influences are at play: his fascination with exotic musical sounds such as the Indonesian gamelan, his Roman Catholicism, and of course, his fascination with birds. Messiaen claimed that birds were the greatest of all musicians, and considered himself to be as much an ornithologist as a composer. Scores such as Oiseaux exotiques allowed him to combine these two interests. In Oiseaux exotiques (1956), as in all his bird compositions, Messiaen is meticulous in how he notates each individual bird call—they are remarkably accurate in both melody and rhythm. Messiaen spent hours in the field on several different continents, listening to individual bird calls and notating them. The wonder of Oiseaux exotiques is that he combines 47 different bird calls, along with rhythms from ancient Greek and from Hindu sources. The bird calls used include 38 different species from North America, two from South America, one each from China, Malaysia and the Canary Islands, and four species from India.
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COLGRASS, M.: Dream Dancer / MESSIAEN, O.: Oiseaux...