Evelyn Glennie conjures the spirits

Evelyn Glennie conjures the spirits

New Creations 2011 opened last night at Roy Thomson Hall with Toronto Symphony Orchestra (c Peter Oundjian) performing a brief and amusing piece by John Adams, A Short Ride on in a Fast Machine. The twisted take on the fanfares was a good appetizer before the two pièces de résistance that made up the evening: The Shaman that Vincent Ho composed for the percussion shaman superstar Evelyn Glennie and the full performance of John Adams’s (no point in hesitating) masterpiece Harmonielehre.

In recording, Harmonielehre is compelling aplenty, but hearing it live and played by the TSO is — let’s reclaim this word from the teenage misuse — in the realm of awesome. It’s a three-movement symphony, in which Adams makes the propulsion, repetition and discordant tempi of minimalism converse with the vocabulary of the later Romantic symphonies and orchestral pieces. Part one begins recognizably minimalist and gung-ho, and as it progresses the seeds of its dissolution develop from the margins and gradually take over, when you find yourself in what you can swear is Mahler or Sibelius. This completely different atmosphere and different textures then free themselves and as they overgrow they start changing shape into more strident, machine-like, atypically tonal, increasingly irregular until you’re back in the familiar territory that Adams started with. But of course, by then, neither territory is safe and at one with itself. Our habit in identifying what’s musically what is by then well disturbed.

This movement is followed by the more lento  The Anfortas Wound (composed at the time when John Adams thought a lot about the place of grace and the unconscious in music making) and the final movement, Meister Eckhardt and Quackie which begins as a berceuse and ends in full blast noise explosion.

To observe such a complex structure come live before one’s eyes, player by player and instrument by instrument, is extraordinary experience. (Get the higher up seats for the rest of the festival!) The TSO under its conductor performed with ferocity and mean precision. Bravi tutti, and no wonder John Adams grinned and looked happy for the entire oh, how many? four-five curtain calls?

In his piece created specifically for Evelyn Glennie, Vincent Ho wrote the orchestra first, then added the percussions as counterpoint (he explained this during the intermission chat). They collaborated throughout and the finished piece leaves considerable ad hoc composing room to the percussionist.  Glennie moved quickly between the full gamut of percussion instruments and even played with the delayed waves of her own amplified voice (Can somebody provide more information about what that was? I am guessing it was artistic manipulation of the miked sound. And tell more about those myriad bells, while you’re at it.) It was she who carried the orchestra and surfed its wave. In this case, the TSO was but a dance partner.  The evening of Shamanism it was: the RTH was already packed with humans when all the spirits happily showed up for duty.

Here’s the amazing Evelyn Glennie — who, did I forget to mention, happens to be deaf — talking about how we hear music with our bodies not with our ears, and why the most important thing in music is what’s not legible in the score.