The Orpheus Project dares to dream big

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A Music on Main presentation. At the Cultch on Thursday, July 17. Continues until Sunday, July 20

By using every square foot of its recently expanded premises, save for storage closets and administration offices, The Orpheus Project has turned the Cultch into a giant Cornell box—except for when it more closely resembles an 17th-century cabinet of curiosities. Following a circuitous route up and down stairs, through previously unknown corridors, in and out of lobbies, bars, green rooms, and performance spaces, intrepid listeners will encounter nine separate works by seven different composers. Some of these pieces, like assemblage artist Joseph Cornell’s sculptural creations, are enigmatic collages of incongruous elements that pack a mysterious psychic allure. On the journey, however, one should be prepared to encounter the occasional two-headed calf, floating in a murky vat of preservative.

Let’s get the biggest calf out of the way, shall we?

But first, some explanation. To view The Orpheus Project, Thursday’s capacity crowd was divided into four colour-coded teams, each taking a different route through the former church and its new extension; some performances are repeated so that all four parties can see them. But everyone meets in the middle, in the “historic theatre”, where they’re served the project’s centrepiece, electroacoustic composer Barry Truax’s Orpheus Ascending. And it doesn’t work.

Granted, Truax’s multichannel tape score is fabulous: a moaning, grinding, ominous invocation of the underworld through which Orpheus, the tragic hero-musician of Greek myth, must journey on his doomed attempt to save the lovely Eurydice. But as a writer of vocal melodies, Truax consistently sacrifices intelligibility for style, and his style is a stilted pastiche of mid-century-modern clichés. The wide intervallic leaps and clashing dissonances he’s crafted for baritone Steve Maddock and soprano Carla Huhtanen might perhaps work as instrumental music, but sung they obliterate any sense of meaning or flow—a double shame, as Truax’s libretto draws heavily on Norbert Ruebsaat’s elegant translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Sonnets to Orpheus.

Most of the other constructions work better. Music on Main resident composer Jocelyn Morlock contributes Orpheus, where north winds never cease, yet another piece that shows why Morlockian will soon be entering the dictionary as a musical descriptor. Her characteristic blend of beauty and dread is abetted here by actor Patti Allen, who cranks a vintage wind machine while declaiming a melodramatic text, and by Huhtanen, in ghostly white and keening wordlessly from behind pianist Christopher Bagan, violist Matthew Davies, and cellist Rebecca Wenham.

All of the singers and musicians had multiple turns, with another highlight being Maddock’s contributions to Veda Hille’s and fast a girl, in which his stentorian German made an attractive contrast to Hille’s soft, amplified, and demotic English-language crooning. Wenham, in turn, astonished in Cassandra Miller’s Nemico Orfeo, not so much because of the brilliance of her playing—her part in this work for cello, two flutes, and soprano is fairly simple—but for the way her instrument reverberated within the concrete stairway that served as a makeshift concert hall. At one point, her high notes bounced off the rear wall, giving the impression of two cellos to match Laura Barron and Mark Takeshi McGregor’s flutes—an intriguing, low-tech spatial effect.

Credit must be given to Music on Main artistic director David Pay for bringing his personal vision of Orpheus to life with this multimedia event, which on Thursday also marked his organization’s 200th concert. At times the music, projections, and staging combined to suggest that The Orpheus Project sprang directly from Pay’s dreamlife—and, as they say, if you’re going to dream, dream big!

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