MUSIC: Canadians in mid-air

From the program notes to Toronto composer Gary Kulesha’s Third Symphony:

Music can be dramatic and challenging, but can also be joyous and life-affirming. All too often, when composers try to compose music that is bright and positive, they turn backwards, and write poor imitations of older music, or, worse, they compose cheap music cynically calculated to “win over” an audience. I believe that we can move forward while at the same time recapturing the joyousness that drew us all, listener and musician alike, into music in the first place. This is what I have tried to do in this symphony.

Let’s take that as our text for these three extraordinary recordings, which I’ve found on CBC Radio 2’s Concerts on Demand website, a gorgeous repository of recent recordings of live performances by Canadian artists in every musical genre. It’s fair game to get mad at Radio 2 for what they’ve done to their broadcast schedule — I’m hoping to run into Katie Malloch at the Montreal jazz festival this year, and after listening to Tonic a few times I’m thinking of bringing along a cake with a file in it. But the CBC remains unmatched as a forum for good music. It’s just that these days, you have to spend a bit more time foraging for it yourself online.

Here are highlights of what I’ve found. Too often it’s easy for Canadian audiences to view Canadian music as a burdensome obligation on the way to the good stuff. That’s because too often, it is. But not always. The music here doesn’t Deserve Your Support in some eat-your-vegetables way; the music here will support you if you give it a listen.

• Kulesha’s Third Symphony, his “aerial” symphony written after the “chthonic” (deep beneath the ground; who knew?) Second. Since its premier by the National Arts Centre Orchestra in 2007, this thing has really taken on a life of its own, thanks to its manageable 21-minute length and its bright, attractive tonal palette. (If you’re in Calgary, go hear the Calgary Philharmonic play it on a program with Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto on the last weekend of the month.) Here’s the CBC recording of Symphony Nova Scotia playing Kulesha’s symphony and some lovely Mozart.

Ironman and Unreasonable World, two concertos by Michael Oesterle. I don’t know much about Oesterle, except that he’s youngish, German-born and resident in small-town Quebec. I suspect he may be unfashionable in Serious Composer circles; the pieces here are small-boned, finely drawn, dramatic but not histrionic. Really not like anything else I’m familiar with. It repeats but it’s not Minimalism. It’s based on 18th- and 19th-century harmony but it sounds fresh. On this performance from February by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, I’m partial to the second concerto, Unreasonable World, written for the band’s very fine concertmaster Kurt Karl Stobbe. In trying to get a handle on Oesterle, I’ve found myself listening to this concert several times, and I’ve decided that should be recommendation enough.

Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra at the Salle du Gesù. In the decade and a half since she studied at McGill, alto saxophonist Christine Jensen (of the Nanaimo Jensens; her sister Ingrid is the trumpeter) has become an animating spirit for the entire Montreal jazz scene. And a good chunk of the Montreal community joins her for this wonderful concert, including pianist Steve Amirault; saxophonists Joel Miller, Chester Doxas and Donny Kennedy; and Ingrid visiting in the trumpet section. This is luminous, gently swinging big-band music that wears its heart on its sleeve and deploys formidable resources with a lot of wit.

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