George Crumb: Music Like None Other



We never studied the music of the American composer George Crumb in music school, but it was his music that struck me as being truly unique when I was a young composer. It was different in so many ways from the music that I had been analyzing in theory class. He had developed a sound world that was so evocative, spiritual, haunting, and personal. It touched me. He explored unusual timbres, placed unusual instruments into the ensembles, devised new extended vocal techniques for singers. He made me realize that contemporary music could be really beautiful as well as being intellectually satisfying.

When I first opened the scores, they looked stunningly unusual. He wrote all his scores in the most fastidious hand. Parts of his compositions are in the shapes of spirals, circles and crosses. Many pieces lacked bar lines, which was revolutionary at that time. When I first saw that technique, I couldn’t figure out how the musicians would play the music!

One of the great benefits of being an Esprit Orchestra audience member is that you get to hear music you might never have the opportunity to hear live. This includes me.

I have never heard Crumb’s A Haunted Landscape in concert, but on Sunday, November 20 Alex and Esprit will offer me that very rare opportunity.

Hear it first with Esprit Orchestra on Sunday, November 20 – yet another Canadian premiere!

— Alexina Louie O.C.


Sunday, November 20th

Esprit Orchestra

Alex Pauk, Music Director

Koerner Hall

273 Bloor St W.


Concert 8:00

Pre-concert chat 7:15

For more information about Esprit’s November 20th concert, and where to buy tickets, click here.

A Long and Meaningful Friendship

alex-schafer-house1Murray Schafer and I have had a long working relationship and friendship and I’ve long thought about celebrating him and his work with a special concert, an event that is really overdue.

I first met Murray when I moved to Vancouver in 1973. He was finishing his work with the World Soundscape Project and preparing to move back to Ontario. I was just beginning my career and looking for work at Simon Fraser University where he was doing his research and teaching. Rather than lead me into academia, he said “you are a composer and conductor – just stick to doing that.” I’m grateful to him for that.

Over Esprit Orchestra’s history (we are about to launch our 34th season), I’ve commissioned several works from him, conducted his music more than 60 times (several times on Canadian and international tours in Europe and China) and made CD recordings of his music. I’ve programmed almost all of his works for orchestra and I’ve conducted the outdoor theatrical works Princess of the Stars and Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix in several separate production runs.

All this is just to say that I know Murray’s music well and respect it, and I know he trusts me and Esprit with his music. Murray will be in attendance at Esprit’s special tribute concert on October 23rd so the event will be a wonderful opportunity for friends and admiring audience members to meet Murray and pay tribute to him as we perform some of his most important pieces for the concert stage. It will be a vibrant celebration of a great composer.

alex-schafer-studio1I’ve lined up some terrific soloists for the concert. For Schafer’s monodrama Adieu Robert Schumann we’ll have the superb mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó in the role of Clara, Robert’s wife, evoking aspects of the last period in Schumann’s life – from his first hallucinations until his death in an asylum in 1856. The text is freely adapted from Clara’s diaries. Passages of Schumann’s compositions (lieder, fragments of his piano pieces) weave in and out of Schafer’s work, evoking moods, characters, and conflicts of the mind as Robert descends progressively into madness. A backstage piano mid-way through the piece plays the melody Schumann wrote down the night of his first dramatic hallucination – a melody he claimed was dictated by angels. The song, Dein Angesicht, opens and closes the composition.

I last performed Adieu Robert Schumann in 1990 with the legendary Maureen Forrester as soloist. I’m thrilled that I’ll now have the chance to do the piece again with Krisztina who is herself developing a legendary career. As for Murray’s flute concerto, this will be the fifth time that flutist Robert Aitken and I have collaborated to perform it with Esprit. The third work of Murray’s on the concert, Scorpius, is one that I commissioned for Esprit and have performed several times before.

Murray has had such a full, diverse artistic life and output. He is a great composer and I want to show this again.

— Alex

The Composer And The Snake

SnakeThe premiere of my composition ‘Sirens’ by the Esprit orchestra was spectacular. I love it when I write a piece and Alex, through his conducting, is able to inspire such a great interpretation from the performers that the piece sounds much better than I imagined. He also went to such great lengths to find an elusive pump organ that is an integral component to this composition making it slightly unique and giving it an unusual flavour. Being a composer is often not an easy task, but when a work is performed so well and received by the audience, that makes it all worth while. Those feelings often last long enough to give energy to begin the next composition.

After this very successful premiere of my piece and a long 28 hour trip back to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, I returned the next day to my hectic teaching schedule.  I was helping my advanced students make recordings of their performance repertoire to submit for their International Baccalaureate Diplomas. This progressed well into the evening.

At around 22:00, I noticed  a cute visitor in the outside entrance to my classroom. I found him stuck in the bottom of the stairwell and he couldn’t get back up the stairs. The school is by the river, so I used a piece of paper to herd him into a large tupperware container and let security put him out. He was really fast and aggressive, rearing up like a cobra and jumping. I checked online and it seems this is an adolescent Malaysian Pit Viper. There is no anti venom, certain death from a bite – and babies are as poisonous as adults. No wonder he was so arrogant! This is one of the many interesting things about living in Vietnam! There is no shortage of inspiration.

— Doug

Douglas Schmidt’s most recent piece for orchestra, Sirens, was premiered by Esprit in our March concert at Koerner Hall. For pictures, click here.

Also see “The Lady Gertrude” and Shanghai Dim Sum