This is the first time the NAC Orchestra has performed Daníel Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto.
Born in Midland, Ontario, August 24, 1981
Now living in Oakville, Ontario
Ian Cusson is a composer of art song, opera and orchestral work. Of Métis and French-Canadian descent, his work explores Canadian Indigenous experience including the history of the Métis people, the hybridity of mixed-racial identity, and the intersection of Western and Indigenous cultures. He studied composition with Jake Heggie (San Francisco) and Samuel Dolin, and piano with James Anagnoson at the Glenn Gould School. He was also mentored by Johannes Debus.
Cusson is the recipient of the Chalmers Professional Development Grant, the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation Award, and grants through the Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council. He was an inaugural Carrefour Composer with the National Arts Centre Orchestra from 2017–2019 and is Composer-in-Residence with the Canadian Opera Company for 2019–2021. He is an Associate Composer of the Canadian Music Centre and a member of the Canadian League of Composers. He lives in Oakville with his wife and four children.
Le loup de Lafontaine is part-legend and part-history, a story that takes place in the small French-speaking Ontario community of Lafontaine in 1902. The story, first recorded by the parish priest in the 1950s, is a cautionary tale where a diverse but divided community is ravaged by a lone wolf. The story is still told today through the yearly Festival du Loup, a celebration of unity and culture in the small Franco-Ontarian community.
Lafontaine lies on the banks of Georgian Bay and has long been a meeting place of diverse peoples. In the time of the story, various settler and Indigenous communities lived in close proximity one to the other, rarely intermixing. Each had a deep mistrust of the other.
It is only with the arrival of the wolf – an outsider – that the community comes to terms with their divided nature. They unite, despite their differences, with the common goal of ridding the land of the intruder.
I have known this story all my life – the terrifying wolf and the frightened community. But the story has always given me pause. The wolf, it turns out, isn’t quite the monster the people make it out to be. It is gentle with children, it keeps to itself, and except for killing sheep for food, it does no harm.
The wolf in the story morphs into a symbol in the community. It is the testing place of the community’s fears and rivalries and hatred. It is the feared and hated outsider whose expulsion from the community will be the means to the restoration of the divided peoples.
The wolf becomes the ultimate scapegoat: it is hunted and killed, its body is strung up in the town square, and the community comes together, celebrating a Mass in honour of its death. The community is rid of this intruder and is united – but at a cost.
In creating the musical landscape of the work I have turned to the sounds of Lafontaine itself. There are tender private moments, the mists over crystalline fields on an early spring morning where a timid and gentle wolf befriends a child. There are public moments, like the raucous sounds from a drinking hole where fiddlers tune their instruments and play Métis fiddle jigs while crowds drunkenly dance.
In the final moment of the work, these private and public spaces come together. The church bells ring and the townspeople enter the church to participate in a Mass celebrating the death of the wolf. Outside we see the child, the wolf’s only friend, crying at the foot of the wolf’s body. The refrain of a hymn wafts out of the church windows, the music a quote from Rameau’s Les Indes galantes where Savages sing of peaceful forests, a place where nothing will again trouble their hearts.
This work is inspired by Le loup de Lafontaine by Thomas Marchildon, published by Société historique de Nouvel-Ontario. The title and general story parameters are used by permission of the publisher.
Evening in early spring in the small country-side community of Lafontaine, on the shores of Georgian Bay. The area has long been a meeting place, and in 1902 is the home of several distinct people groups: Métis, Ojibwe and various French settlers, all of whom share a deep mistrust of the other.
Across the fields music pours out of a tavern. Inside, the townsfolk drink and dance, keeping to their own, unwilling to interact with anyone who is not like them. When Joseph Lortie, a drunk French man stumbles into François Labatte, a Métis man, François berates the man and all Frenchmen like him. Joseph challenges François: they will each dance for the honour of their people. The loser and his friends will clean the others’ sleds for a month.
The Métis tune their fiddles. François dances and is joined by his wife, Odina. Joseph has enough of their dance, and interrupts them. He can do better. The tavern owner tries to calm the two men but François thumbs his nose at Joseph. Joseph, enraged, stumbles into the middle of the room and attempts to dance.
Barely able to stand, he falls over. His friends help him up and a young French man takes his place and dances for him. He is joined by more of the French people until the room is alight with movement, bodies are colliding, everyone is dancing, trying to prove they are the better dancers. Just as a fight is about to break out, the sound of a howling wolf stops everyone. A wolf loose in the village means one thing: it is hungry. Panic ensues and everyone rushes for the door.
An early morning fog lingers over an empty crystalline field. Out of nowhere, the wolf appears. He is cautious, timid even. Alone, he dances. A butterfly appears. He chases it away. A distant bird calls. Curious, he replies.
The butterfly returns. This time the wolf is careful not to frighten it away. Together, they play, running through the field. But the wolf stops dead in his tracks when he comes face-to-face with a small girl. He hides behind a large rock.
The girl approaches the wolf. Ever so carefully, the wolf approaches the girl. They play together: a mystical dance. They dance and dance until, exhausted, they lay down in the field and fall asleep.
A group of townspeople pass by the field. They see the girl and wolf on the ground. Has the beast finally killed? They spring into action. The girl and wolf awaken to the commotion and before anyone can lay hands on him, the wolf vanishes.
The quiet of a community holding its breath. Fear of the wolf is at an extreme. The townspeople, French, Métis and Ojibwe rally together. The wolf must be stopped. Putting aside their differences, they will hunt the wolf together.
A first group of hunters sets out in search of the wolf. When it appears, they shoot but miss. A second group of hunters try their luck. The wolf appears out of nowhere, mocking the hunters. They shoot, but miss.
The one-eyed Théophile Brunelle declares before a crowd of townspeople that he and he alone will be the one to kill the wolf. The hunters laugh at him. Théophile sets out, takes aim, shoots and misses. Again he tries, and again he misses.
While the hunters strategize their next plan of attack, Théophile points his gun across the field, closes his one good eye and shoots. The bullet hits the animal. The wolf limps off into the bush.
Alone in the cold, the wolf dies. The animals from the surrounding bush approach the wolf’s body. They nudge it, trying to coax him up, to flee before the hunters find him.
The hunters enter the bush, find the wolf and drag him to the town square. They string up his lifeless body in front of the church. The townspeople rejoice. Pushing through the crowd, the young girl reaches the square and sees the wolf. She falls to the ground in tears.
A church bell sounds, calling the towns-people. They enter the church. A hymn plays from within as the townspeople hold a Mass in celebration of the wolf’s death.
Alone, outside, the girl weeps.
– Program note by Ian Cusson
Born in Copenhagen, February 26, 1979
Now living near Reykjavik, Iceland
Iceland’s small size and sparse population belie the country's cultural riches. This land of volcanic eruptions, lava fields, glaciers and geysers holds the reputation, among other things, for the highest literacy rate in the world, so it is hardly surprising to discover that it also supports a thriving and variegated cultural life, especially in music. The pop singer Björk, the jazz fusion band Mezzoforte, and rock acts like The Sugarcubes, Sóley, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men keep Iceland in the international spotlight. In the realm of classical music, Iceland boasts its own Music Information Centre, an excellent symphony orchestra, and dozens of composers going back over a century, of which Daníel Bjarnason is currently one of the most famous.
Bjarnason (byarn-ah-sahn, accent on the third syllable) was born in Denmark to Icelandic parents. He studied piano, composition and conducting in Reykjavik, then undertook further studies at the University of Music in Freiburg, Germany. He is currently composer-in-residence at the Muziekgebouw Frits Philips in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Formerly he held the position of Artist-in-Residence with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra from 2015 to 2018, having since 2019 taken on the position of Principal Guest Conductor. Bjarnason’s catalogue is exceptionally eclectic, with music for orchestra (including several concerted works), chamber ensembles, chorus (a cappella and with orchestra), film, dance and an opera based on a movie (Brothers, premiered to great acclaim in Denmark in 2017).
As a conductor, Bjarnason has led orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic (which has commissioned several of his works), the BBC Philharmonic, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, the Toronto Symphony and the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. His versatility has led him to collaborations with numerous non-classical musicians and groups including Ben Frost, Sigur Rós and Brian Eno.
The Violin Concerto was composed in 2017 as a co-commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Gustavo Dudamel led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the world premiere on August 22, 2017. Since then, it has been played by the major orchestras of New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and London (the Philharmonia), Paris and Helsinki, with Finnish Radio. The soloist on all occasions was tonight’s artist, Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who further performs the Concerto this season in Sweden, with the symphony orchestras of Gothenburg and Swedish Radio in Stockholm, and Germany, with MDR Sinfonieorchester in Leipzig and NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester in Hamburg.
One of the many unusual and fascinating elements Bjarnason has incorporated into this concerto can be heard in the opening moments, where the violinist doubles his own playing with whistling (“something I do quite often when I improvise,” notes Kuusisto). Another aspect that colours the whole sound of the solo part is the tuning of the lowest string (normally G) down a fourth to D. This allows the instrument to give off a “raunchy” sound, as Kuusisto puts it, “something you normally don’t get on a violin. This changes the whole resonance of the instrument; it vibrates in a different way.”
Listeners will soon recognize that Bjarnason’s concerto is rich in rhythmic excitement. The orchestra is very much a partner with the soloist, not an accompanist. Aside from two improvised cadenzas, the orchestra plays almost continuously, as does the soloist. The 20-minute work is laid out in a series of connected episodes ranging from lighthearted playfulness to violent confrontation, from beatific stasis to raging fury. “I was really excited by the language and by the handling of really massive elements – tectonic plates of music – but also by the level of detail in the orchestration and by the music’s heavy, natural flow,” Kuusisto noted in an interview.
– Program note by Robert Markow