April 8, 2020

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Wijeratne's world première of Gajaga Vannama bristles with energy

Throughout its 47-year history, the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra has presented a trophy case of wunderkind artists including Guy Few, Scott Yoo and Stewart Goodyear, who have become part of the organization’s fine legacy of introducing city audiences to prodigious talent.

SUPPLIED</p><p>Sri Lankan-Canadian pianist and composer Dinuk Wijeratne.</p>


Sri Lankan-Canadian pianist and composer Dinuk Wijeratne.

The latest addition to that ever-growing list is mesmerizing Sri-Lankan-Canadian conductor/composer/pianist Dinuk Wijeratne, who made his MCO debut Wednesday night, proving his inestimable chops in all three disciplines while living up to his creative reputation.

The wildly eclectic program offered a whirlwind glimpse into the Juno award-winning artist’s musical influences, notably featuring the world première of his piano concerto Gajaga Vannama: Fantasy Variations on a Traditional Theme, co-commissioned by the MCO and I Musici de Montreal chamber group as the latest instalment in the MCO’s New Concerto Project series.

Introduced by Wijeratne as "his attempt to capture the majesty of the elephant as it pertains to ritual and ceremony in Sri Lanka," the "East-meets-West" work bristles with the energy of a coiled spring, fuelled by a near-impossible melting pot of Indian tabla-like dance rhythms, funky jazz riffs, tonal clusters and extended instrumental techniques, including Wijeratne reaching inside his piano to strike and strum harp-like glissandi on its strings à la American composer John Cage.

But it also showcased the artist’s ability to spin a rainbow’s spectrum of textural effects, including its delicate, transparent opening. It featured his own tinkling piano motives underpinned by swooping violins and taps on the players’ strings with their bows, which gradually morphed like shifting sands toward a triumphant finish.

There were many wonderful moments during this series of Fantasy Variations that quickly slipped by that one wished these moments might linger a bit longer to provide greater cohesion. But when these well-seasoned MCO players suddenly broke into song, or when Wijeratne inserted his own enthralling vocal recitation midway in the roughly 15-minute piece, any doubts quickly evaporated. It left the impression one has just journeyed into the heart of a strange new world of breathtaking beauty and joyous energy, and it earned a rousing standing ovation by the bewitched crowd at the Westminster United Church.

Wijeratne also treated listeners to a "palate cleanser," his hypnotic, approximately five-minute piano solo The Poetry of Squares following the intermission. Inspired by his own "lifelong obsession with the table" the imagistic piece showcased his bravura technique in which cascades of arpeggios are punctuated by harmonic chords, evoking the well-crafted works of J. S. Bach and Chopin that earned more cheers .

The program also featured Mozart’s Divertimento in B-flat Major, K137/125B. It was the first piece of Western music a young Wijeratne heard while growing up in Sri Lanka.

A string orchestra arrangement of Bartok’s Rumanian Folk Dances, originally penned for solo piano invariably feels overly gentrified, lacking the blood and guts of a village celebration despite the players digging in hard to its rustic harmonies.

John Corigliano’s Voyage for String Orchestra (1976) became the artist’s personal homage to the American composer with whom he once studied in New York City. An outlier, Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time, Op. 40 (Suite in Olden Style) rounded out the bill while providing overall balance. It was charmingly introduced by Wijeratne, who served as gracious host throughout the evening, adding the piece had "no impact on me, but is just a great piece."

It’s always a pleasure to hear the latter work, including its fetching theme from its third movement Gavotte and Musette, harnessed as the opening theme for CBC Radio Two’s classical music request program, RSVP, performed with graceful lilt. However its penultimate movement, Air, remains one for the desert island, as a gorgeous expression of hushed introspection that speaks directly and unequivocally to the heart.



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