Review: Young Métis composer shows sophisticated aesthetic in new work aided by NACO

Ian Cusson

In May 2017, NACO announced the first two composers selected for Carrefour, a joint career development program with the Canada Council of the Arts for composers from “culturally diverse or Indigenous backgrounds.” Ian Cusson and Remy Siu were awarded five-year residencies with the orchestra, during which they will be mentored as they produce new compositions.  

On Sunday, Cusson’s first work under the program had its world premiere at the National Gallery. Where there’s a Wall is a song cycle for mezzo and chamber ensemble, based on Joy Kogawa’s gripping, timely poems about her childhood experiences in a Japanese-Canadian internment camp.

Cusson, a Toronto-based composer of Métis heritage, has already established a specialization in writing for voice, with several sets of art songs and choral compositions in his portfolio. Where there’s a Wall reveals a young composer with a refined, sophisticated aesthetic, who is sensitive to text and texture.

There’s nothing outrageously original, complicated or self-conscious here; just quality, sober, accomplished writing that leaves space around the music and mostly stays out of its own way. The third of the five songs in the set, Grief Poem, is a solemn chorale with lush, Brahmsian harmonies; I like to hear a composer who can express gravity without heaviness.  The title song uses urgent whispering and spoken word effects to convey an oppressive atmosphere of being hunted and watched. But here the instrumentation — string trio with double bass, clarinet, bassoon and flute, got a little thick, making the low, murmured words inaudible.

Mezzo Krisztina Szabo is an eloquent advocate for new Canadian music, and brought her perfectionism, commitment, and rich creamy tone to bear on these songs. To open the concert, Szabo performed Corigliano’s Three Irish Folk Songs with NACO principal flute Joanna G’froerer, a set that was elevated by the beautifully matched tone and lyricism of the two musicians, not to mention ample Irish charm. Canadian composer Harry Freedman’s scat-influenced Toccata for Soprano and Flute, from 1968, has not aged so well, and sat too high and chirpy for Szabo’s dignified instrument.

In the second half, NACO musicians performed a gracefully articulated Beethoven Septet in E-flat major, with lovely, bel canto solos by cellist Julia MacLaine and clarinettist Kimball Sykes.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.