October 22, 2021 update on live performances and events at the NAC.

Stray Birds

NACO at the Fourth
Kevin Lau

In the Garden of Endless Sleep for oboe and piano

Inspired by a fictitious place in Gene Wolfe’s science fiction novel The Book of the New Sun, Kevin Lau (b. 1982) was sparked by an image of “a garden that moves through time, flickering between present, past, and future” to create In the Garden of Endless Sleep for oboe and piano (2020). He notes that the piece explores the “idea of viewing the garden—a cultivated slice of natural beauty—through various stages of growth and decay.” He was also interested in capturing the juxtaposition of “simplicity versus impermeability,” as influenced by Wolfe’s elusive prose. In Lau’s words:

I tried to capture this in part by evoking musical memories from older time periods in a somewhat hazy fashion, and in part through texture—in particular, the use of the piano’s sustained pedal to blur certain harmonies together. The structure of the piece is “fuzzy” as well, invoking not so much rondo form as its afterimage. Although there is an earthy, organic aspect to the piece—the melodious but often asymmetric oboe lines, for example, suggesting the contours of vines and roots and the sprawl of overgrown vegetation—the music is otherwise steeped in a dream-like and uneasy vagueness. 

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

ALISON YUN-FEI JIANG

Stray Birds for wind quintet

In her recent works, Canadian composer Alison Yun-Fei Jiang (b. 1992) incorporates themes of cultural displacement, contemplating on the clashing and merging of cultural identities manifested in her own musical language. In 2020, she was announced as one of the NAC’s new Carrefour Composers, a program in partnership with the Canada Council. She shares the following description about her first commission as Carrefour composer, a composition for wind quintet, Stray Birds (2021):

Stray Birds is a musical meditation on the poetics of birds; it is a metaphorical narrative and a personal response to the topics of travel, diaspora, and home.
 

During the pandemic, with travel constrained and everything working remotely, I have spent more time at home in Toronto than I have in years. I have found myself increasingly appreciating and finding joy in simple things, such as birdwatching from my window and during my daily walks around the neighbourhood. Seeing the free-spirited birds around home brings me comfort and happiness; this piece celebrates such simple happiness. There are moments when the music sounds like birds taking off, flapping their wings, singing, and engaging in chatter. As I find an association between birds’ migration and the human immigration experience, this piece is also a metaphorical “flight”, where one travels and migrates from a bird’s-eye view, experiences a journey of diaspora and displacement, and finally lands at home. The journey is personal and transformative; memories from the past become broken, fragmented, and distorted, and one’s identity becomes reincarnated and reborn. In composing, I channelled the dramaturgy, lyricism, and storytelling from the southern Chinese opera that I grew up immersed in. To musically and metaphorically convey a sense of a fragmented past and a transformed identity, I made the piece sometimes collage-like, often childlike and direct, almost theatrical and, at one point, reiterative in a kind of flow state.
 

This piece also celebrates spring, as I wrote it around the time of the Lunar New Year and had the Chinese renao concept in mind (it literally translates to “hot and spicy” and is a word used to convey a sense of festivity, bustling activity, and liveliness). I hope that, with the help of our fantastic wind quintet, this music can “take flight” like the free-spirited birds. I hope it brings some comfort and joy to the listeners, just as the birds did for me.

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

AMY BEACH

Pastorale for wind quintet, Op. 151

While Lau’s work considers nature’s more enigmatic qualities, Amy Beach’s Pastorale evokes the serene and idyllic aspects of nature and being out in nature. By the time Beach (1867–1944) wrote it in June 1941, she was a celebrated American composer and one of the most frequently performed of her generation. She completed it during what would be her final residence at the MacDowell Colony, an artist retreat located in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where she had regularly spent time to compose, close to nature, for the past 20 years. 

In substance, Pastorale is in fact a reworking of two earlier versions (the first for flute, cello, and piano, the second for cello and organ) that she had composed during her first residency at the MacDowell Colony in 1921. In this version, which is also her only work for woodwind quintet, motifs from the original theme are distributed between the instruments in counterpoint. It begins very softly in the warm lower registers of the clarinet and oboe, with the characteristic “drone” intoned by the horn and bassoon. A key change signals the middle section, during which the parts increase in volume and expand in pitch range, thus intensifying the mood before returning to the initial tranquility at the conclusion. 

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

SAMUEL BARBER

Summer Music for wind quintet, Op. 31

American composer Samuel Barber (1910–1981) wrote Summer Music in 1955, to fulfill a commission from the Chamber Music Society of Detroit (it was financed, remarkably for the time, through public donations similar to today’s crowdfunding campaigns). Although the work was premiered in March 1956 by the principal players of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Barber composed it with the New York Wind Quintet in mind. After initially meeting the group’s members in January 1955, he observed them working in rehearsal, during which they explored techniques of producing unique sonorities as an ensemble. When the Quintet read through the finished work for the first time, flutist Samuel Baron expressed delight at what the composer had created for them: “We were completely gassed! What a wonderful new quintet conception. [Barber] has written some of our favourite effects.” After the premiere, Barber decided to shorten the piece, in consultation with the Quintet, to the final version that is performed today.

Summer Music unfolds continuously in one movement, structured as a series of episodes during which main themes are presented and return. It opens with a slow introduction featuring  a gentle pulsating theme first introduced by the horn and bassoon, evoking the languor of a hot summer’s day or night. A tender melody of darker character follows, a kind of melancholy serenade played by the oboe. The mood lifts, with the instruments “chattering” on a playful rhythmic motive, after which an even livelier section of shifting rhythmic patterns ensues. The principal themes are then reintroduced in reverse order. Later, a new urgency takes hold, intensifying to a grand climax; it eventually dissolves, returning to the opening mood before the ensemble closes with a virtuosic flourish. 

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

POULENC

Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano

I. Presto
II. Andante
III. Rondo

Tonight’s concert closes with a witty sparkler by Parisian composer Francis Poulenc (1899–1963): his Trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano. He began work on it in 1924 (following the sensational success of his ballet score Les biches for Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet russes) and, through a rather painstaking creative process, finally completed it in 1926. The composer himself performed the piano part at the Trio’s premiere at Paris’s Salle des Agriculteurs on May 2, 1926.

Poulenc considered this work to be one of importance for him, and later in his life, expressed that “I’m rather fond of my Trio because it sounds well and its sections balance each other.” Along with textural clarity and formal balance, the Trio displays other signature Poulencian aspects from the early period of his compositional career—clever twists on 18th century European music styles; a tonal harmonic palette though spiked with acerbic dissonances; and expressive melodies for which he had an evident gift. After an introduction of somewhat mock seriousness and grandeur, a vivacious theme begins the first movement proper. This melody bookends a sequence of sections, each presenting a new tune or motive, unfolding like vignettes of an operatic drama in which the oboe and bassoon are the main characters.

The Andante is the emotional heart of the piece, with the oboe and bassoon singing a “sweet and melancholic” (Poulenc’s words) duet. Shifting harmonies in the piano part create a dreamy and poignant atmosphere. A perky theme of unrelenting good cheer launches the concluding Rondo; it alternates with contrasting moments of martial spirit and lyrical tenderness, the latter incorporating lush romantic harmonies and rhapsodic piano writing. 

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

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