Review: Ian Cusson’s ambitious wolf howls in the hall

Ian Cusson is the composer of Le Loup de Lafontaine. Photo: Leemarc Lao

Although it was pure coincidence, it’s fitting that Ian Cusson’s new work, Le Loup de Lafontaine, had its world premiere by NACO on the evening after the massive pan-Canadian climate change marches. While the narrative behind the music is pulled from a fantastic but simple local legend, the story can be interpreted as a metaphor for the conflict between humans and nature, lost innocence and the power of a perceived shared threat that unites divided camps.

Cusson was inspired by a tall tale from his hometown of  Midland, Ontario, about a wolf that strolled into the neighbouring village of Lafontaine one day and played with the children like a pet spaniel. The terrified adults — French, English and Métis — put aside their usual squabbles and cultural divisions to hunt the beast together, triumphantly hanging its carcass at the church door. 

Clocking in at three movements and 20 plus minutes, the full orchestral score is Cusson’s most ambitious to date, bearing the stamp of the young Métis composer’s characteristic elegance and restraint. 

Originally conceived as a ballet, Loup is vividly descriptive, evocative even in its orchestration (which includes contrabassoon, piano and a constellation of gongs)  of Ravel’s l’Enfant et les Sortilèges or Stravinsky’s Petruskha. Short “sections” clearly alternate between boisterous crowd scenes and more intimate solos and pas de deux. Cusson makes heavy use of various dance rhythms — marches, waltzes, gigs —and you can almost see the choreography unfolding in your mind’s eye. The strongest sections include a tender duet for bass clarinet and flute, beautifully played by Sean Rice and Joanna G’froerer, and a violent Grand Guignol march for the villagers as they drag the wolf’s body back from the hunt.

If you’re already thinking this sounds like a darker version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, you’re not wrong. In fact, Cusson’s Loup would benefit from a Peter-like narrator: the short text surtitles flashing on a video screen didn’t provide enough storyline and were sometimes behind or ahead of the music. If Cusson is serious about seeing his music paired with dance, he’ll also need to make the themes and motifs stronger and more defined.

In story ballets, the music can serve as an aural spotlight, helping the audience know where to turn their attention on a busy stage (think of how Adam, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev used their main character themes to augment the narrative). As just one example, I would have liked to hear the bass clarinet from the second movement come back much more prominently for the wolf’s death scene, which Cusson chiefly gives over to a string quintet. 

Still, with a few tweaks and some collaboration, this charming work could have real staying power. Cusson’s somewhat conservative melodicism doesn’t produce boundary-shattering, aggressively original music, but his writing is always superbly crafted and brimming with sensitive expression. 

Hard-driving Finnish violinist impresses

Pekka Kuusisto was ferocious and implacable. Photo:  Maarit Kytöharju 

If it’s originality you’re looking for, Icelandic composer’s Daniel Bjarnason’s violin concerto delivers. Bjarnarson wrote it in 2017 for Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. One of the project’s main instigators was Arna Einarsdottir, then the ISO’s General Manager. Einarsdottir is now NACO’s top administrator, and we have her to thank for bringing Kuusisto and the concerto to Ottawa. 

Bjarnason packs a lot into his 20-minute, single movement concerto, but the writing is tighter than a drum, with not a single wasted second. It opens, famously, with Kuusisto whistling and playing in a self-duet (God help any violinist who wants to play this if they don’t have serious whistling skills). 

Bjarnason’s music is ferocious and implacable. Big slabs of thick orchestral texture played at furious speed alternate with long, exposed, improvised cadenzas for the soloist. Kuusisto never plays these the same way twice; on Friday, video close ups showed his bow hairs gradually being shredded by long passages of extended techniques, including some kind of bariolage-with-harmonics witchcraft that sounded like a baby dragon. Conductor John Storgårds’ volcanic energy and spontaneous approach added to the thrill-a-minute excitement. 

Bookending the Métis fiddler who opened the concert, Kuusisto played two foot-stomping Finnish fiddle tunes as an encore. 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.