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Bass clarinet player jeff Reilly

Composer Peter-Anthony Togni
photo credit Geoffrey Creighton

Jane Enkin's Review of Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah by Peter-Anthony Togni

by Jane Enkin, January 29, 2013

The New Music Festival runs to February 2, 2013

“Pour out your tears, my eyes; for these things do I weep...” Lamentations 1:16

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's 2013 New Music Festival opened Monday night with a program by the Elmer Iseler Singers. This 20 voice, unaccompanied choir creates subtle, delicate layers of sound. The first half of the program featured soft, moody pieces. Composer Timothy Corlis, who teaches here at the Canadian Mennonite University, created hushed images of a snowy morning in Silent Dawn. Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, in Tag Des Jahrs, set poems about the four seasons, all of them cast in dark tones. Of the three opening pieces, the one I enjoyed the most was Voices, by revered Canadian composer Harry Freedman, full of playful energy and texture. But what drew me to this evening was the grand work offered as the second half of the concert.

Peter-Anthony Togni has written a beautiful, aching interpretation of Eikha, The Book of Lamentations.Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae is a concerto for choir and bass clarinet. The work is available on CD on the prestigious ECM label.

In both Jewish and Christian traditions, this book of the Bible is read in a time of mourning. We chant it on Tisha B'Av, in memory of the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is not an arm's length, calm memorial – we relive the destruction, humiliation and outcry through vivid, graphic language.

Both traditions name the prophet Jeremiah as the author of these emotional words. In his innovative, approach, Togni has cast the solo bass clarinet player in the role of the prophet. While the choir sings, mostly in very measured, sad tones, the soloist expresses the many moods of the text.

Introducing the composition, Togni said it is about “holy madness, [about one who] tells the truth and is disregarded, tells the truth no matter what. And truth is often in the margins.”

Togni spoke as well about the origins of this unusual instrumentation. In medieval music, a horn player would often improvise with a choir. A deeper reason, he explained, was his strong friendship with bass clarinet player Jeff Reilly. Lamentatio was created for this virtuoso improvisational musician.

For most of the piece, the choir sustained simple lines, staying on the same notes for several words at a time, creating solid chords. The sound evoked medieval church music. The effect was sad, but very calm. There were a few moments of agitation built up through some increase in speed, but the slow, staid sounds always returned. The only other exception was the full-voiced, beautiful, descending lament sung by soprano Rebecca Whelan. It was as if the people of Jerusalem were in mourning but complacent, accepting their fate, broken by their losses.

Before we heard the choir at all, we heard the haunting tones of the bass clarinet. Visual elements in the piece were very important – at first, Reilly was hidden from sight as he played, then the tall, lithe player slowly walked out from behind the singers and took his place centre stage. Throughout, he moved in ways that gave us a visual sense of the prophet.

While the choir's music was solemn, the clarinet music ranged through a full spectrum of sounds. The instrument itself has a huge range, explored powerfully by Reilly. He played sweet, pianissimo high notes, and bottom notes like a fog horn. In moments of anger or plea, the clarinet barked, squealed and growled. Yet the clarinet also carried the gentlest, most prayer-filled melodies of the work. Togni told us that about 25% of the concerto is improvised. This flexibility in the composition gave Reilly the room to play extended solos, to play smoothly in dialogue with the choir, and to rage and cry out in contrast to their mellow sounds.

This extraordinary performance took us deeply into the passions of the text, which encompasses so many feelings. Nostalgia and memory of what has been lost, shame and remorse, fierce protest and accusations of betrayal, calls for revenge, and bleak despair flare up throughout Eikha. Present, too, is an attempt to cleave to God, to find tshuvah, a turning and a redemption.

“Turn us toward You, O Lord, and we shall be turned; Renew our days as of old.”

At the end of Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae, while the choir murmured a low chord, Reilly removed the long, curved mouthpiece from his bass clarinet. Playing the mouthpiece on its own, he woke our hearts with the call of the shofar.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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