Atayoskewin by Malcom Forsyth

Atayoskewin is one of Forsyth’s most frequently-played compositions, and for a good reason: it is a brilliantly scored, imaginative, highly enjoyable evocation of three aspects of the Albertan northland, music that could only have been written by a Canadian.

Forsyth composed his suite Atayoskewin (the Cree word for “sacred legend) in 1984 on commission from Shell Canada to mark the opening of its $1.4 billion Scotford refinery and petrochemical complex northwest of Edmonton. When the Edmonton Symphony under Uri Mayer first performed it on November 16th of that year, the critic of the Edmonton Journal wrote: “I concur with the consensus of audience opinion: gorgeous, wonderful … brilliantly depictive.” The composition won Forsyth the Juno Award for Best Classical Composition in 1987.

The composer explains what he attempted to portray in Atayoskewin: “The inspiration behind this title is something of a mood, a feeling that I had when I made my first-ever trip to northern Alberta during the winter. It was very cold, and I saw this barren land where the tar sands are being developed. It’s a very forbidding land, but it has a kind of majesty which is unmistakable. It’s a very quiet place, and the people who have lived there for so many centuries are a very quiet people, and it somehow is the influence of the place that they’ve lived in.”

Each of the three movements conjures up a mood or image. “The Spirits” opens with the captivating sound of woodwinds and mallet instruments reminiscent of a Balinese gamelan ensemble. The four-note motif featured in the slow introduction will pervade the entire movement in one form or another. A soaring flute solo over harp ostinato sets in motion the main section in which much of the writing features glistening, shimmering effects that reflect Forsyth’s encounter with the “brilliant sunshine and crystalline air” of northern Alberta. Gentle, peaceful thoughts pervade “The Dream.” A repeated, four-note scale pattern in the strings supported by softly glowing chords in the trombones serve as the backdrop for another four-note motif making sporadic appearances in the woodwinds, an idea borrowed from the Fifth Symphony by another composer well familiar with northern climes and landscapes, Sibelius. Brass and percussion (especially timpani and xylophone) come to the fore in “The Dance,” full of spiky melodies, asymmetrical rhythms, pounding drums and exuberant spirits.

credit -Robert Markow

Hear it live with the SSO and guest conductor Gordon Gerrard this weekend!

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