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Volume 10 Issue 6 - March 2005

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Ensemble Alexina Louie &

Ensemble Alexina Louie & Alex Pauk by David Perlman WHEN I SAY THAT lunch with Esprit Orchestra founder and director Alex Pauk and composer Alexina Louie back in mid-February started with Toothpaste and Burnt Toast, I'm commenting on some of the topics of conversation, not the cuisine at their cosy King West club. Toothpaste was a five-minute opera by Alexina Louie and librettist Dan Redican, developed in the mid nineties in the ferment of one of Tapestry New Opera Works' renowned composer/librettist laboratories. Tapestry's Claire Hopkinson and Wayne Strongman, in an interview published in Canadian Theatre Review, Fall 1998 recalled the occasion. "We've had some very rewarding moments" said Claire. "Sitting in on the little segments that have come out of a day's work is a tremendously rewarding experience. Alexina Louie, who is now writing her first opera for the Canadian Opera Company, hesitantly came into the composer-librettist laboratory, and paired up with tv comedy writer Dan Redic;m." [Redican is best known these days for Puppets who Kill: ed]. "Alexina never thought she could write a funny line of music in her life - it just wasn't part of her vocabulary. Well, they wrote this hilarious sketch about toothpaste." "It was a scene from a marriage" recalls Wayne. "Someone left the cap off a tube of toothpaste, and it became the basis of a sketch about a marriage coming apart." "Alexina said it was a seminal experience for her," Claire continued. "It just let something go.' In the theatre world, people do a lot of exercises in trust and collaboration. But, when you have writers and composers writing alone, in their own comers, the communication gap can be quite large. This was a very intense and interesting laboratory." Toothpaste was subsequently recorded and has been broadcast in over a dozen countries. If you've missed it so far it's available for viewing on a hilarious and very slick little website called Be warned though. Once you open the bathroom cabinet on the site, you will be faced with shelf after shelf of hazardously punny products. (Mezzo-Seltzer, Tristan Decongestant, Liquid Callas Remover, Band-Aidas, Flossing Dutchman ... and these are not even the worst). Ignore them, however, and click on the tube f "Phu'-King Toothpaste" and you're in for a rare treat - five minutes of over-the-top operatic buffoonery set to a breathtakingly accomplished score by Alexina, one that bears listening to over ·and over again. "So now Dan and I are finishing up on Burnt Toast, which is eight comedic mini-operas for television, all in some way or another domestic dramas like Toothpaste" says Alexina. "In fact," Alex Pauk interjects "Burnt Toast is what we're working on right here [in this month's WholeNote cover photo]. There's a monitor on top of the piano and we're looking at the last of the eight pieces of Toast. I'm making notes because even though it's Alexina's project it's Esprit musicians doing the music, and I'm conducting the score. The one we're working on here is the only one where the filming was done first. In all the others there is a lot of lip-synching, beca1,1se the faces you see on screen are not the singers. But in this one you don't see faces at all." "You are going to hear a lot of the greatest operatic voices of our generation in this series"_ says Alexina. "But the faces you see will be actors you know as well by sight as you know the singers by their sound." (It's no accident that a Pauk/ Louie collaboration like this one, even though it's an international co-production, turns for its performers to artists nurtured here. Loyalty breeds loyalty, and opportunity nurtures artistry.) "Getting back to the photograph, for a second" I ask. "What's the score taped up on the wall behind the piano? n Alex laughs. "Oh that. It's revisions I'm making to my Harp Concerto - the one that Erica Goodman will play at the March 6 Esprit concert. It was written for her, you know." The March 6 concert, which will also be performed in Montreal several days later at the Montreal/Nouvelles Musiques (MNM) 2005 International Festival, also includes music by Denys Bouliane, an Artistic Director of the Societe de musique contemporaine du Quebec (SMCQ), and by Alexina (who will then go on to be one of the featured composers at the Montreal festival). Mr. Bouliane will be· guest conductor for his work Snow is White but Water is Black (he talks about the work in intriguing detail to Paul Steenhuisen elsewhere in this issue). The featured Alexina Louie work is The Death of Seigen, an excerpt from The Scarlet Princess. Commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company, The Scarlet Princess, with Tony Award-winning playwright !;>avid Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) as librettist, premiered in concert by the COC in April 2002 but has had a rocky ride since then, in terms of the limited range of performance options a company like the COC can offer. "But this upcoming performance will do the work justice" says Alexina. "The section being performed has a unity and completeness to it. " You can tell from the conversation that the upcoming March 6 concert has that little extra something in terms of importance to both Alex and Alexina. "Alexina has been part of Esprit since the beginning in 1983" explains Alex. "And yet it's very seldom that we've had works together on a programme. It means something to us. 0 And it's going to be a great concert. Beyond the quality of the individual works, the pieces also work together. There will be a tangible structure, a tension to the event. The audience is in for a great ride." ENSEMBLE The word "ensemble" has as one of its senses a unit or group of complementary parts that contribute to a single effect. And it was that aspect of the relationship between these two very individual musicians that drew me to this story. Each has an aspect of their work in which the other is an almost invisible other presence, a silent partner. And to balance that, there are areas in which they work so seamlessly together as a team that it's impossible to identify which parts of the work are hers and which his. "Do you feel like the characters in Toothpaste?" I ask "Surprisingly seldom. I think the fact of both being musicians helps you understand what the other person is going through WWW. THEWHOLENOTE.COM MARCH 1 - APRIL 7 2005

and needs for their work. It can only make it easier" says Alexina. "Take deadlines for example. No matter how much time as a composer you have, there is always that creative tension when the reality of the deadline is there." "So if you both understand that" deadpans Alex "you get an instinct for when your main role in life is conductor, and when your central function is as courier, to get Alexina's score for Paris to the CMC for copying by ten am come hell or high water." THEY HA VE VERY DlFFERENT compositional styles, and in some ways this also makes things easier. Alexina's composing is very strongly tied to the piano; Alex works comfortably for much longer stretches straight to paper. "For me" says Alexina "I don't like to go more than about four hours, even when I am on the road, without access to a piano. My way is very much a process of perceiving an arc or line in the music in general, but then I have to test and retest the sounds themselves. It is not a case of knowing intellectually what the next right thing is, but of testing and retesting until I recognize what is right by discovering or uncovering it." BEYOND THE KIND of teamwork and mutual accommodation that allows each of these individuals the room for independent "parallel play" there is also a significant area in which their teamwork is powerful and direct - as joint composers for several acclaimed works for film. Among them are Don McKellar's feature film Last Night (winner of the Prix de Jeunesse, Cannes Film Festival, 1998), Jeremy Podeswa's feature film The Five Senses, Podeswa's TV movie After the Harvest, Rhombus Media's docudrama Ravel's Brain, and Rhombus Media's feature film Perfect Pie. (Currently they are working on a score for a two hour movie called Moment of Victory, to be aired on the History Channel -- a montage of many hundreds of still photographs from around· the world, celebrating VE Day.) For Don McKellar, the collaboration on Last Night brought with it a particular memorable moment. "I was called to say the score was ready and would I come to such and such a place at such and such a time to hear it. I sauntered in, approximately on time and couldn't quite understand the sense of urgency from. Alex and Alexina at the door. We went in, and there was an orchestra waiting to perform the score. A whole orchestra. I'd been expecting a synthesizer or something. It was my Hollywood moment." The counterpart of that "Esprit moment" has been experienced by literally dozens of Ca11adian composers. When I interviewed Alex a few years back for WholeNote, I recall, he talked about how in the seventies and early eighties, composition students were being discouraged from writing for large ensembles, because there would be no opportunity for the works thus created to be performed. Esprit has given a generation of composers in Canada the opportunity to write for full orchestra with the assurance that their work will be performed and then potentially become part of the repertoire of an orchestra solely dedicated to the creation, commissioning and repeated performance of contemporary classical work. BEYOND .MARCH 6 there's one more big Esprit event to look forward to - their second New Wave Festival, May 24-26. Their last subscription concert of the year will wrap up the three days on the Sunday at their usual venue, the Jane Mallett Theatre", but prior to that Esprit will head out to unconventional venues along "West Queen West" for a weekend of forum, rehearsal, performance and workshop, featuring the music of what they describe as a "new wave" of composers. The process of finding new ways to bring new music to people, and new people to the music, is for these two adventurers, a constant process of discovery and invention, buoyed by an inextinguishable pleasure in the work that, parallel and in ensemble, they love to do. Women's Musical Club of Toronto AFTERNOON CONCERT Thursday, March lO at 1.30 p.m. LARK QUARTET, string quartet Works by Beethoven , Gershwin, Bo/cum. El!ingron, & Ravel Walter Hall, f dward Johnson Building 80 Queen ·s Park Tickets '29 416-923-7052 Upcoming Concert April 14, 1.30 pm Eve Egoyan, piano , with dancers from Oancemakers A11 A/iernoon o/Erik Satie. including works hy Emngelisw. Tr.111aka, a11d No1;rftrd Subscribe to mu3ic in tkeA/ternoon 2005-2006 Sea,jon Five great concerts/or the early-bi1d price q($ I I 5 (11111il Ma." 30"'J Thursday afiernoons al 1.30 p.111. Pre-concert lecture 12.15 p.111. Vienna Piano Trio October 27. 2005 Alain Trudel, trombone November 24. 2005 & members of the TSO Jupiter String Quartet January 19. 2006 2004 Banff ISQC Winner Xiang Zou, piano March 9. 2006 2003 Honens 1st Laureate Meredith Hall. soprano Bernard Farley, guitar Sylvain Bergeron. lute L. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building For more information or to subscribe, call 416-923-7052 April 20, 2006 J MARCH 1 - APRIL 7 2005 WWW. THEWHOLENOTE.COM

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