…The Start of Something Big

Music students frantically attempt to keep up with theory, harmony, sight-singing, keyboard harmony, exams, papers, presentations, practising, performing, singing in the university chorus, ensemble work etc. Because of the stress of this continual development of skills, an unspoken understanding develops among colleagues.

Alex & John

Alex & John

Esprit Orchestra founder and conductor Alex Pauk and composer, educator John Rea have known each other for, dare I say, several decades now, ever since they were students at the University of Toronto.

John eventually made his way to Princeton, to satisfy his academic curiosity – Alex to Vancouver, to develop his career in composition and conducting. During his decade in Vancouver, Alex founded his third new music group, Days, Months and Years to Come. Because of their ongoing camaraderie and musical respect for one another, John was one of the first composers Alex commissioned for that new ensemble. The piece? Jeux de Scène. That was 1976!

Fast-forward several years…

Alex had moved back to Toronto and John had become a professor of composition at McGill University. At that time, Alex introduced me to the remarkable John Rea. We had such warm, zany, intellectually stimulating times together (and we continue to do so). Not only did we learn about the wide intellectual pursuits that John was constantly considering, but we also learned a lot about Italian cooking – and he learned a lot about Chinese cooking. Many wonderful Italian and Chinese meals have been eaten since those earlier times. Ah, the joy of sharing great cuisines!

Over the years, the friendship between Alex and John saw them through many experiences, including countless meetings of the Canadian League of Composers (Alex was for many years the President, and John was a member of the Executive Committee). There were so many contentious issues that impacted the lives of composers that the CLC meetings went on for hours at a time. I remember one day they arrived from a meeting in a stupor. Wordlessly, they simultaneously lay down on the floor on their backs, staring at the ceiling! (They may have groaned). It was quite a sight.

Over thirty years ago, Alex felt the need to start a special orchestra devoted to the music of our time – a contemporary music orchestra – an orchestra of committed players able to handle the technical musical challenges of brand new scores. They had to put their total energy, vigor and expression into bringing difficult new scores to life by giving them excellent performances.

As the Viennese composer, Arnold Schoenberg once said, “My music is not modern, it is merely badly played.” Esprit’s mission was to ensure that such terms would not apply to its artistry. This takes a lot of energy, as well as a lot of rehearsal.

Before setting out to build this dream orchestra, Alex approached John to act as a sounding board. The two of them tossed ideas back and forth and John, in his usual fashion, posed questions that encouraged Alex and helped clarify a way to proceed.

Alex & John. Photo Credit: Rob Pilichowski

Alex & John. Photo Credit: Rob Pilichowski

Those discussions took place prior to 1982. The rest, as they say, is history. Canada’s only full-sized orchestra dedicated solely to performing the music of our time was created 33 years ago. It remains one of the very few in the world.

Who was the first composer commissioned by Esprit? John Rea, Vanishing Points. The two friends collaborate again on Sunday, November 15.

Come witness the fruits of their friendship.

– Alexina

Esprit Orchestra: Play

Sunday, November 15, Koerner Hall 8:00 PM

7:15 Pre-concert chat – composers John Rea & Andrew Norman with Alexina Louie

Tevot (Thomas Adès), Play (Andrew Norman), Zefiro torna (John Rea)

Join us for Esprit’s biggest orchestra to date (including quintuple winds, 8 French Horns, 8 percussionists and TWO TUBAS)! It is going to be amazing!


What A Rush!

Alexina 2After Esprit’s opening concert on October 4, as is our routine, Alex and I joined our friends and composer colleagues for a post-concert celebration, after which we arrived home past midnight. I then prepared for my Vancouver-bound flight departing early the next morning. Somehow the days prior to the Esprit concert were swallowed up by all the responsibilities of managing the many details related to the Esprit concert (including my pre-concert talk), as well as preparing university lectures for the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University.

I managed to pack and catch my plane, and immediately upon arrival in Vancouver, I rushed to my double rehearsal with Turning Point Ensemble —a double rehearsal because Owen Underhill, Turning Point’s music director and conductor, had done me the honour of bookending their season opening concerts with two of my compositions: Music For A Thousand Autumns (1983) and A Curious Passerby At Fu’s Funeral (2015) — yes, that is a difference of 32 years!

Composing a new work can take several months or even a year or two depending on the size of the commission and the detail of the new work. For the duration of the compositional process, I am always weighing my musical ideas and constantly refining them. Often an idea that seems very creative makes me wonder, “What was I thinking?” in the clear light of the following day. Many ‘good ideas’ end up on the other side of the pencil. It is tiring work, but as the months move forward, excitement begins to build. By the time I put the double bar (signaling the end) on A Curious Passerby, I felt I had written a piece that satisfied my creative instincts.

Turning Point percussionists Martin Fisk (L) and Jonathan Bernard (R) & Alexina in percussion set up post concert.

Turning Point percussionists Martin Fisk (L) and Jonathan Bernard (R) & Alexina in percussion set up pre-concert.

For a composer, the routine of the performers preparing your composition for a premiere is filled with anticipation and sometimes dread. Why dread? Because those sounds that you have been living within your head are not fully heard or realized until you get to your first rehearsal. Is the musical material worthy? Did some sections go on too long? Did you balance the dynamics (louds and softs) of the ensemble well? Did you develop the musical idea skillfully enough or did you approach the material in too haphazard a fashion? Or did that development take too long? Did the apex of your piece reach its mark? These are a small handful of some of the larger overall issues that might plague you and cause you some anxiety.

The first rehearsal is often a nightmare. In a short amount of time you have to catch mistakes in the copying, answer many questions from the musicians (How loud do you want this? Is the tempo correct? Does the bassoon have the lead line here? Is this the correct sound you want from the gong? Do you need a different one? etc.). Since the musicians come to ‘read’ the score together for the first time, the first rehearsal is usually a surprise event for everyone!

The number of rehearsals you receive for your new piece depends on the performing organization, but if you ask any composer, you never have enough rehearsals! The day of the performance there is the dress rehearsal, which is a run through of the entire concert. At this point there is usually, but not always, time for last minute touchups. Then you have to trust the musicians to pull all the stops out at the concert (usually that evening). The ‘dress’ most often lacks a bit of zip and may be a little disappointing because the players often pace themselves in order to save their biggest effort for the performance. If they are committed to your piece, they will put their full energy and skill on the line at the concert.

A Curious Passerby At Fu’s Funeral had a rousing reception – Owen was pleased, the musicians were enthusiastic, and the audience was overwhelmingly responsive. After all, they had been there to witness and to participate in an exciting event – the first time a newly created composition was to be publicly performed. It’s a bit of a risk for all of us: Would the piece succeed or would it fall short of its goal?

Alexina, Conductor Owen Underhill and Turning Point Ensemble immediately after the world premiere of A Curious Passerby At Fu's Funeral, Vancouver

Alexina, Conductor Owen Underhill and Turning Point Ensemble immediately after the world premiere of “A Curious Passerby At Fu’s Funeral”, Vancouver

It was wonderful to have been welcomed home with terrific performances of two compositions. (I was born and raised in Vancouver. I studied piano privately with the most supportive teacher, Jean Lyons, and went on to attend UBC.) Several friends and colleagues whom I hadn’t seen in several years attended the premiere. As well, a number of university students who were at my lectures came to the second performance.

That Owen and TPE took most of those concert pieces to several cities across Canada was so unusual for a brand new composition. What a privilege to have it heard in several centres just after its world premiere.

The long months of work resulted in an energetic, fast-paced, and exciting composition. The new work had an impact. When my husband, Esprit’s conductor Alex Pauk, heard the piece for the first time at the performance sponsored by New Music Concerts in Toronto on October 17, he turned to me and said, “That’s a wild piece! You had the audience on the edge of their seats!”

To succeed in creating a work that excites people, given the very unusual nature of the world of contemporary composition, is truly satisfying. The long days, nights, and months of difficult work culminated in several committed performances. That it was received with such enthusiasm was a thrill.

What a rush!

– Alexina


Norman2“Unease about speed is the adrenaline dispenser in video games, when you’re always one shot, or one flick of the joystick away from catastrophe. Play might leave listeners with the uncomfortable feeling that they are not listening fast enough.” So writes Justin Davidson Follow commenting on the explosion in full freak-out mode that comes with the downbeat of Play by Andrew Norman, one of Esprit’s guest composers on November 15th at Koerner Hall.

Norman3Play, a 45-minute symphony based on the multiple meanings of the work’s title, is organized in unusual ways. Non-linear forms like those encountered in video games serve as important sources of inspiration.

Regarding Play‘s reference to video games, Norman says, “Play for me has this reference to video games. I’m not a huge gamer, but there is something about the way games are structured and the way narratives are structured in a game which is very appealing to me as I think about form and music. Oftentimes there’s a non-linear way through a game. How to convey a story arc, or a general narrative over a span of time, but one that can loop back on itself, and that can take a circuitous route through the material.

We’re very adept at processing these things from the ways we watch movies and TV these days. I mean, non-linear story telling seems to be almost a cliché in some of our other time-based mediums; the whole flash back, or flash forward, or cut to a parallel universe kind of thing. Why not in orchestra music?”

Norman5There is a strong theatrical aspect to the piece. Norman wants the audience to “see” the piece being performed live because he has written instructions in the score for musicians to behave in special (sometimes strange) ways. “Players often freeze in place, mid-breath and bow-stroke, waiting to be turned on again by the flick of a percussive switch.”

The piece is, in part, a work of wordless theatre. Play involves human interactions, playing of instruments – play in child-like ways, as well as in sinister modes of control – “being played”.


In creating the piece the composer gave thought to what the performers are doing on stage and their relationships in the hall: The conductor’s arm-waving causes things to happen; the composer controls the conductor’s arm waving – both cause the players to do things. All this causes the audience to have certain feelings. The chain of cause and effect is foremost in Norman’s mind.

PLAY with ESPRIT Sunday November 15th!

– Alex