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

Two Composers Under One Roof by Alexina Louie

People often ask Alex and I what it is like having two composers in the family. Letʼs just say itʼs lively! Our household has been particularly ʻexcitingʼ lately as we are both finishing new pieces at the same time.

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Alex is writing his biggest and most profound work, Devotions for The Elmer Iseler Singers and Esprit Orchestra complete with expanded percussion section, and I am writing my smallest work, Small Beautiful Things, a set of eleven pedagogical piano pieces. Devotions premieres on Esprit Orchestraʼs final concert of our 33rd season on March 31, 2016 at Koerner Hall.

Devotions was inspired, in part, by the writings of Lao Tsu about the Tao, an ancient Chinese philosophy of life, as well as lines from a Japanese martial arts text and indigenous peoplesʼ poetry. Its movements have titles that reflect these profound words and ideas: Wondrous Tao, Be Brave!, Lifting Hands, Mask, Luminous Spheres Ascending.

On the other hand, one of the short pieces in my set of eleven is called Little Balinese Dancer. It was inspired by the lovely, enchanting, magical child dancers who performed for us in Bali. I recalled their expressive eyes, hand gestures and the unique way their bodies moved to the Balinese gamelan music. I wanted to capture their movements to the lilting cadence of the music as the dancers moved so expressively to its hypnotic rhythms and exquisite colours.

x IMG_5596Another of my pieces is called Little Grey Bird, a composition that was inspired by a small unusual visitor who came to our bird feeder every day for several weeks this past winter. It was most unusual because it sat on the feeder from early morning until the sun went down, day after day. Our family became very attached to our little grey bird. Then one day, it disappeared. I felt compelled to write a piece that would do honour to our small friend. Not wanting it to be a sad ʻrequiemʼ for our bird, I needed this piece to be charming but not saccharine. After several attempts and many drafts, the thirty-seven bar composition caught just the right, sweet tone.

What is it like in our home when we are both composing? As a hint, letʼs just say that we have completely opposite working methods. Alex works at a computer. I play every note at the same baby grand piano that I had when I was a piano student. Alex loves working into the very wee hours of the morning. I like to sleep!

What is it like when both of us are writing a film score together? Youʼll have to ask our daughters!

Itʼs an interesting household.

Note: I am still trying to persuade Alex to be one of my pre-concert chat guests. He is being evasive….!