Concert Program Notes


Born in Kentville, Nova Scotia, August 28, 1939; now living in Toronto

In his Spiral, the composer invites us to experience the effects of the physical phenomenon in tone, having carefully laid out his instrumental forces to maximize this effect.

Spiral was commissioned by John Roberts and the CBC for the NAC Orchestra and its music director Mario Bernardi, who gave the first performance on October 1, 1975. On that occasion, the composer offered these words of explanation about his work:

"Spiral is essentially a work investigating the juxtaposition of block sonorities much as a plastic artist might work with different physical materials. The word ‘spiral' indicates this relationship of matter moving around a fixed point, continuously receding from or approaching it, and the orchestra itself is laid out in sonority blocks to facilitate this process. For those interested in the formal aspects, it could be represented by ABACDE, with all of the material for the piece represented in the first section and the remainder being a working-out and development of it. The tonal material, and the piece is to a great extent tonal (or, more correctly, polytonal) is taken from two levels of the harmonic spectrum, of a note working from the ninth partial upwards. This accounts for the frequent use of microtones. The rhythms and formal relationships in both the large and minute sense are entirely based on permutations of 7 (i.e. 1436527 etc.)

"Now that the drier aspects are exposed, I should point out that the overall dramatic shape becomes apparent only at the end of the piece. The amplified instruments, which until this time have performed only non-instrumental sounds, finally reduce the other instruments to the same non-pitched growling as they take off, soaring over the dying noise of the orchestra."


Born in Oshawa, Ontario, April 11, 1934; now living in Orono, Ontario (about 75 km east of Toronto)

Aleatoric music and pointillism were just two of the many new ideas swirling about in the 1960s and ‘70s. Random, indeterminate, chance (aleatoric) fields of notes and the notion of many isolated "dots" or pinpricks of sound (pointillism) inform Beecroft's second" improvisation," written for the NAC Orchestra's second season in 1970-1971.

Norma Beecroft has written three works with the title Improvvisazioni Concertanti. The first was in 1961 for flute and orchestra, the second in 1971 for the NAC Orchestra, and the third in 1973 for flute, timpani and orchestra. No. 2 was composed during the NAC Orchestra's second season (1970-1971) and first performed on April 21, 1971 conducted by Mario Bernardi.

The composer conceived the work as a kind of contemporary concerto grosso, with the first-chair players used in solo ensembles (string quartet, woodwind quintet, etc.). The solo instruments and groups play in pointillistic style, the full orchestra in a more even-textured and almost tonal style. "Thus, by contrast of styles, the smaller ensembles are given their own aura, are ‘framed,' as it were, in the visual sense." Solo groups and full orchestra each have their own material, which is not developed by the other. Improvisatory techniques are used, especially in the central section.

Beecroft has stated also that "the first time I used the aleatoric (chance music) technique was in Improvvisazioni Concertanti No. 2. I wanted to have the work take a certain kind of shape – almost a mirror shape – so that in the center of the work you have this accumulation of orchestral sound. I decided to try to experiment with improvisation but in a very, very controlled way so that certain kinds of sounds would last for ten seconds, certain kinds for fifteen seconds, and some for thirty seconds. Overall there would be a dynamic structure."


Born in Chicago, April 22, 1932; now living in Toronto

Delta is a triple concerto with violin, clarinet and percussion as the three soloists. The image of a delta – the triangular, fan-shaped region where a river separates into many smaller streams as it approaches the mouth - plays a role in the shaping of the music in that three rivers come together in Ottawa (the Ottawa, the Rideau and the Gatineau), the city for whose orchestra Delta was written. In this context, each soloist plays a different variant of the same music. The convergence of styles also serves as a metaphor for the many different kinds of people living in Canada.

Having passed his 78th birthday last April, Michael Colgrass now ranks as one of Canada's senior composers. He also holds a unique distinction among prominent classical composers in North America in that he is the only one whose music is well known equally on both sides of the Canadian-American border. His life has divided neatly into two nearly equal halves, first in the United States, then in Canada, where he has lived since 1974.

Colgrass's musical education was undertaken with such prominent figures as Darius Milhaud, Lucas Foss, Ben Weber and Wallingford Riegger. After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1956, he went to New York City where he free-lanced as a percussion player in a wide range of "gigs" ranging from the New York Philharmonic to Dizzy Gillespie's jazz band to the original West Side Story orchestra on Broadway. Over the years, Colgrass turned more to composing, and now enjoys a career based solely on commissions, which have come from the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, Toronto Symphony and many others. His list of prizes includes a Pulitzer (for Déja vu, 1978), two Guggenheims, a Rockefeller Grant, and the 1988 Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music. Recent works include Raag Mala for wind ensemble (2006), Side by Side for harpsichord, altered piano and orchestra (2007), and Pan Trio for steel drums, harp, marimba and xylophone (2008).

Delta resulted from a commission from the National Arts Center Orchestra, which gave the world premiere on October 16, 1979 with Mario Bernardi conducting. Here is the composer's description of the work:

"In 1979, when I was commissioned to write a concerto for percussion, violin, clarinet and orchestra, I went to Ottawa to meet the musicians and hear them play. During the visit, I was impressed by Ottawa being the meeting place of three rivers (the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau), and this image fused in my mind with the idea of a triple concerto. The title Delta seemed appropriate not only because delta means triangle (being the triangular shaped fourth letter of the Greek alphabet), but because a delta is the mouth of a river that fans out into rivulets of water as it meets the sea. This metaphor describes perfectly the nature of this piece, because the three soloists play their own independent solos, each stemming from the same central theme.

"The idea of rivers flowing through the lives of people of various cultures and through changing times is echoed by the soloists in Delta, who play in a counterpoint of styles that keep evolving and changing. At the opening, for example, the timpani play music in the style of the North American Indians while the violin plays a twentieth-century variation and the clarinet a romantic variation of the same theme. These solos start by interlacing gradually, then overlap in various ways as each explores its own musical style – romantic, modern, jazz, etc.

"The three soloists are situated on stage with their own separate orchestras and change position from time to time to enhance the concept of their individuality and to separate them visually for the listener. I might add that thought the listener will hear various modes of music in Delta, some of which will recall specific styles past and present, all the music in this work is original and nothing is quoted from known works. If any one style predominates, it might be that of the native Indian, inspired by the Ottawa as the central river of the three and the original home of the Ottawa Indians, an Algonquin-speaking tribe. To the listener, I think the overall effect of Delta will be that of a homogeneous mix of styles reflecting the great variety of origins of North American people."


Born in Sarnia, Ontario, July 18, 1933; now living in Indian River, Ontario.

Over the years, the National Arts Centre Orchestra has performed the music of R. Murray Schafer on more than thirty occasions, beginning in 1973 (only the fourth year of the Orchestra's existence) when it commissioned East. Since then, it has commissioned four additional works: Cortège (1977), The Garden of the Heart (1981), Gitanjali (1992) and Dream-E-Scape (2009). In July, 2008, the NAC honored the composer with a "Schafer at 75" celebration of his lifetime achievement.

Schafer is one of Canada's most gifted, most articulate, most provocative, most eclectic and most performed composers. There is no such thing as a "typical" work by Schafer. His compositions often result from special explorations into the worlds of sound, sonics, language, philosophy, psychology, mythology, theater, ritual, or any combination thereof. Even audience participation is not unknown. His compositions can range from a modest four-minute Untitled Composition for Orchestra to an all-night ritual involving the five senses (Ra). Schafer also tends to write for unusual and unorthodox combinations: harp and string quartet (Theseus) or twelve trombones (Music for Wilderness Lake), to cite just two cases. One of the most significant aspects of Schafer's wide-ranging catalogue is the series of string quartets he has been producing since 1970. As of 2009, he was up to eleven, making him the composer of string quartets in Canada, at least for the foreseeable future.

In addition, Schafer is widely-known, both throughout Canada and abroad, as an environmentalist, educator and writer. He has some twenty literary works to his credit, of which E.T.A. Hoffmann and Music and The Tuning of the World are especially important. As for his musical training, Schafer is largely self-taught, having been dismissed from the University of Toronto in his first year. He acknowledges influence from John Weinzweig and Greta Kraus, and intellectual stimulation from Marshall McLuhan.

East was commissioned by the National Arts Centre Orchestra with the aid of a grant from the Canada Council. Mario Bernardi conducted the first performance on October 4, 1973. The composer has written the following words on the title page of the score:

"East is a meditation on a text from the Isha-Upanishad: ‘The self is one. Unmoving it moves faster than the mind. The senses lag, but self runs ahead. Unmoving it outruns pursuit The self is everywhere, without body, without shape, whole, pure, wise, all-knowing, farseeing, self-depending, all-transcending. Unmoving, it moves far away, yet near, within all, outside all.' The forty-eight words of the text are punctuated by forty-eight gongs, sounding approximately every ten seconds. Each letter of the text is given a pitch value depending on its frequency of occurrence in the text and the note patterns arising from the words form the harmonic and melodic material which the orchestra plays and occasionally sings."


Born in Toronto, March 11, 1913; now living in Toronto

"A multi-section structure of solo saxophone events colored by jazz inflections" was how the composer described his Divertimento No. 6, composed for solo saxophone and strings. In it, he incorporates many kinds of notation for the soloist: vibrato, gradual accelerando and ritardando, rapid repetition of the same note, chromatic murmurs, smorzato (fluctuations in volume produced by the jaw), key clicking (without tone), flutter tongue, slap tongue, and quarter tones. All in all, quite a fascinating work.

Weinzweig's Divertimento series began in 1946 and topped out at twelve more than half a century later. The sixth dates from 1972 and was commissioned by Paul Brodie for the Third World Saxophone Congress in Toronto with the aid of a grant from the Canada Council. As Weinzweig had studied the saxophone in his youth (he also learned to play piano, violin, double bass, mandolin and tuba), he was well acquainted with its qualities and abilities. The composer acknowledged much influence from Stravinsky in this work, especially in a strong sense of rhythm and in orchestrating with clarity. The Divertimento also has a strong infusion of jazz idioms, "probably the kind of sound that came out of the virtuoso jazz players of the 1920s," said Weinzweig. This highly rhythmic, single-movement work progresses through many moods, and incorporates many kinds of notation for the soloist: vibrato, gradual accelerando and ritardando, rapid repetition of the same note, chromatic murmurs, smorzato (fluctuations in volume produced by the jaw), key clicking (without tone), flutter tongue, slap tongue, and quarter tones.

A note in the score indicates that in this work, Weinzweig "directs his explorations towards the rhythmic interactions between soloist and ensemble. The result is a multi-section structure of solo saxophone events colored by jazz inflections. Its inner shapes include cadenzas and controlled improvisations in dialogue actions."

Credits and Copyright

  • Text Asset: Canadians in the Timeline
    Robert Markow
  • Text Asset: Robert Aitken, Spiral
    2010, Robert Markow
  • Text Asset: Norma Beecroft, Improvvisazioni Concertanti No. 2
    2010, Robert Markow
  • Text Asset: Michael Colgrass, Delta
    2010, Robert Markow
  • Text Asset: R. Murray Schafer, East
    2010, Robert Markow<
  • Text Asset: John Weinzweig, Divertimento No. 6
    2010, Robert Markow
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