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Review: TSO’s 12th Annual New Creations Festival ‘Knocking at the Hellgate’ (March 12, 2016)


The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) curated the TSO’s 12th Annual New Creations Festival which was avant-garde and infused with the best contemporary music in Toronto this March. Revered Australian composer, conductor, and violist Brett Dean joined festival conductor and host Peter Oundjian created diverse, powerful and swoon worthy programming.

Packed with Premières (World, North American, and Canadian), many of which are TSO Commissions, the New Creations Festival features original, intriguing music by Canadian composers Kevin Lau, Paul Frehner, and Skratch Bastid, as well as works by György Kurtág (Hungary), Anthony Pateras (Australia), James Ledger (Australia), Jonny Greenwood (UK) of Radiohead fame, and of course, Brett Dean. Guest artists include Toronto’s Afiara Quartet, baritone Russell Braun, DJ Skratch Bastid, filmmaker Peter Mettler, and Swedish trumpet virtuoso Håkan Hardenberger. To round out the festival, Toronto composer Abigail Richardson-Schulte curated an array of ancillary events such as pre-concert performances, a forum presented in collaboration with the Canadian Music Centre, and post-concert parties.

Brett Dean presented last night’s ‘Knocking at the Hellgate’—a vocal/instrumental suite of excerpts from his forceful, surreal, and highly praised 2010 opera, Bliss, starring baritone Russell Braun. The evening included Water, a tender and dynamic piece by Jonny Greenwood of the iconic English rock group, Radiohead, which adds a tambura (an East Indian instrument), to the Orchestra. As an ear-opening final bonus, DJ Skratch Bastid created a remix of music from the festival.

‘Water was commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, who worked closely with Greenwood to develop a taut and nuanced work employing a unique instrumentation. The work is scored for two flutes, amplified upright piano, chamber organ, string orchestra, and one or two tanpuras. The inclusion of the tanpura, a traditional Indian drone instrument, came as a result of Tognetti’s initial desire for Greenwood to employ electronics alongside the orchestra. Throughout the work, Greenwood manages to incorporate the tanpura in unique and surprising ways.

Greenwood established himself as a significant compositional force with his award-winning score for the 2007 film There Will Be Blood. In 2012, Greenwood created the Suite from There Will be Blood, scored for string orchestra with ondes martenot. This arrangement has since received numerous performances around the world, including one this month by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. The performance, under the direction of Scott O’Neil, takes place on April 25 at Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver.’ (Excerpt from https://www.eamdc.com/news/us-premiere-of-jonny-greenwoods-water-with-australian-chamber-orchestra/).

Greenwood’s ‘Water’ was a wonderful ode to Philip Larkin’s poem of the same name.


If I were called in

To construct a religion

I should make use of water.


Going to church

Would entail a fording

To dry, different clothes;


My liturgy would employ

Images of sousing,

A furious devout drench,


And I should raise in the east

A glass of water

Where any-angled light

Would congregate endlessly.

Greenwood’s meditative piece enhanced Larkin’s poem with the addition of the tanpura. The tanpura’s soft tones effortlessly melted alongside the chamber orchestra.  One couldn’t help but envision observing a body of water on a sunny day with its ripples and then those polar opposite quiet but disastrous moments in a storm.  These themes floated alongside Larkin’s poetic intention.  We see how the glimmer of water is used as a form of a cleansing ritual in religion, the importance of practicing faith in the present and the transcendent power of water as a life force seen within one’s own healing, growth and empowerment through faith.

As we transitioned from ‘Water’ into ‘Knocking at the Hellgate’ we felt the pangs of emotion, discontent and movement from one stage of light into a chapter of darkness.

Skratch Bastid’s custom summary of TSO’s 12th annual New Creations Festival was pure decadence and gave the audience a break from the intensity of the evening. It seemed like everyone was waiting for him to take centre stage with his kit.  His piece was a testament to the TSO taking the Company not only in a modern direction but creating a sense of inclusion for the next generation of music enthusiasts.  Skratch took bits and pieces from the festival’s rehearsals and stitched them into a breakbeat essay that not only demonstrated the beautifully curated scope of the festival but honoured the musicians work at its classical core.  I encourage TSO instead of giving Skratch Bastid five minutes to give him an hour in the years ahead.  It’s time.

Please continue to check out other wonderful programming at TSO in 2016. They are changing the game for classical music in ‘the city’.

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