The only full-sized orchestra in Canada devoted to performing and promoting new orchestral music, the Esprit Orchestra was founded in 1983 by Music Director and Conductor Alex Pauk with financial assistance from the Canada Council and Suncor Inc. Known as Esprit Contemporain from 1983 to 1986, the Toronto-based orchestra commissions and premieres new Canadian works each season. It ensures continued public access to these works through repeat performances, radio broadcasts, compact disc and film recordings, and national and international tours. As of 2014, the orchestra was made up of 75 members, including a permanent core of musicians as well as freelancers.
Esprit gave its first concert on 19 August 1983 in Kingston, Ontario, with the assistance of the National Youth Orchestra. It performed works by Serge Garant and Alexina Louie (Pauk's wife); and premiered two commissioned works, Alchemies by John Burke and Vanishing Points by John Rea, establishing a pattern that has characterized the orchestra's subsequent programs.
Another notable early performance was at the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) World Music Days in Toronto on 26 September 1984, when it premiered Brian Cherney’s Into the Distant Stillness... and Pauk’s Mirage.
Concert Series and Guest Artists
Esprit’s annual subscription series, consisting of three to five concerts per season, has been held over the years at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre and at Koerner Hall on the University of Toronto campus.
The Subscription Series concerts have included such guest artists as Robert Aitken (flute), the Elmer Iseler Singers, Erica Goodman (harp), Rivka Golani (viola), Desmond Hoebig (cello), Gwen Hoebig (violin), Rosemarie Landry (soprano), André Laplante (piano), Joseph Macerollo (accordion), Richard Margison (tenor), Nexus (percussion ensemble), Marie-Danielle Parent (soprano), Jamie Parker (piano), Jon Kimura Parker (piano), Gary Relyea (baritone) and Jean Stilwell (mezzo).
Commissions and Premieres
Esprit has commissioned and premiered works by such Canadian composers as István Anhalt (SparkskrapS, 19 March 1988), John Beckwith (Peregrin, 3 March 1990), Ka Nin Chan (Ecstasy, 8 March 1987), Tomas Dusatko (Traces of Becoming, 1 February 1987), José Evangelista (Elephant in the Dark, 24 February 1986), Denis Gougeon (Enfant de la terre et ciel étoilé, 16 April 1989), Gary Hayes (Freewheeling/Free Choice/Freedom, 3 March 1990), Rudolf Komorous (Sinfony, 20 November 1988), Peter Paul Koprowski (Rachel — Games and Daydreams of a Child, 7 December 1986), Michel Longtin (Lettre de Roxana à Décébal Hormuz, 4 December 1987), R. Murray Schafer (Scorpius, 25 March 1991), Norman Symonds (From the Eye of the Wind, 1 January 1988) and Owen Underhill (Labyrinth of Ears, 24 November 1990).
By 2004, the works of well over 50 Canadian composers had been performed by the Esprit Orchestra — several programmed more than once — including, in addition to those named above: Sergio Barroso, Denys Bouliane, Tim Brady, Michael Colgrass, Brian Current, Paul Dolden, Harry Freedman, Jacques Hétu, Larry Lake, James Rolfe, Jon Siddall, Harry Somers, James Tenney, Gilles Tremblay and Barry Truax, among others. John Weinzweig was honoured by Esprit on his 75th birthday at its March 1988 concert.
The orchestra has also given the Canadian premieres of music by such international composers as John Adams, William Bolcom, David Del Tredici, Ron Ford, Mauricio Kagel, Morton Lauridon, György Ligeti, Steve Reich, Wolfgang Rihm, Frederick Rzewski, Iannis Xenakis and Bernd Alois Zimmermann.
Together with the Société de musique Contemporaine du Québec, Esprit presented a concert of commissioned works at the Arts Festival of the Olympic Winter Games in Calgary on 14 February 1988, which included Pauk's Split Seconds, Rea's Time and Again and Allan Bell’s Concerto for Two Orchestras. This program was repeated in Vancouver, Ottawa, Montréal and Toronto. Subsequent tours took Esprit to Calgary, Vancouver, Banff and Edmonton in 1998, and in 1999 to Paris and the International Gaudeamus Music Week in Amsterdam. This debut European tour showcased works by Louie and Rea, as well as Scott Godin, Chris Paul Harman, Colin McPhee, Ana Sokolovic and Claude Vivier.
The orchestra’s 2012–13 season featured premieres of new works by Michael Colgrass, Chris Paul Harman, Paul Frehner, John Rea and R. Murray Schafer.
Esprit's various educational programs are an important part of its activities. The New Wave Composers Festival engages young composers and showcases their work to help launch their careers. Toward a Living Art allows students to attend professional working rehearsals and concerts for students. The Student Audience Program provides free concert tickets to Toronto-area youth. The Creative Sparks program pairs high school music classes with working composers to create group compositions by students, while Criss-Cross matches Creative Sparks participants with artists from other disciplines.
Esprit has made several recordings for CBC Records (see also Music at the CBC) and Centrediscs, and its concerts are regularly recorded for broadcast on CBC Radio 2. The orchestra has also recorded the scores (many of them composed by Pauk) for numerous feature films and documentaries, including Paul Gross’s Passchendaele (2008), Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998), Jeremy Podeswa’s The Five Senses (1999), and Rhombus Media’s Ravel’s Brain (2001), Perfect Pie (2002) and Inside Hana’s Suitcase (2009).
Awards and Recognition
Esprit was the first orchestra to receive the prestigious Jean A. Chalmers National Music Award in 1995, for its outstanding contribution to musical creativity. In 1990, the orchestra was given SOCAN's Award of Merit, recognizing imaginative programming of contemporary music. The Lieutenant Governor's Award for the Arts, for success in developing private-sector and community support, has been bestowed on Esprit three times (1996, 1998, 2000), testifying to the role it has played in sustaining and furthering orchestral composition in Canada.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.