These sins are music to composer’s ears

Elmira’s Michael Purves-Smith draws on Bosch’s visual representation to write a concerto about the Seven Deadly Sins

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Aside from imperiling your mortal soul, the Seven Deadly Sins can be rather time-consuming. But for Elmira composer Michael Purves-Smith, the resultant new concerto has been a labour of love.

His Seven Deadly Sins was inspired by the Hieronymus Bosch painting of the same name, and with a little prodding from his wife Shannon, Purves-Smith began setting the visual aspects to music. Since he started, he’s invested more than 650 hours into the 25-minute piece of music, written for the finicky alto clarinet and a wind ensemble.

The piece will be performed starting next month by the Wellington Wind Symphony.

The painting that inspired the piece is a classic from Bosch’s collection of works, outlining the seven deadly sins found throughout the Bible: envy, pride, gluttony, lust, greed or avarice, sloth and wrath. The painting is as interesting as the instrument he wrote the concerto for.

“The alto clarinet is a mysterious instrument. It seems that nobody wants to play it. It is a really neat instrument that can squeak and make an awful sound unless it is played properly,” he said, adding that Stephen Fox will be performing Purves-Smith’s work. “It has amazing range and Fox is a very fine player with a considerable international reputation. What is more amazing is that he actually makes the instruments himself, and they are generally regarded as the best clarinets being made. Every principle clarinet player in the Toronto Symphony uses his instruments. He is kind of a genius, there is no question.”

No stranger to composing, Purves-Smith says he started Seven Deadly Sins by just sitting at the piano.

“When I started to write, I realized that this is a big job. Each sin demands a certain amount of attention and then they have to all be brought together in a continuous flow, to make some sense,” he said. “ I guess everybody is different, but I just sit down and try and find something that will lead me in the right direction. I was listening to Stravinsky, and he has this minor major 7th – I have based the whole thing on that. From there, you get a piece of 25 minutes in length. It isn’t easy to do. It is always a risk doing something like this.”

He says it was a challenge coming up with seven unique sections of the concerto, but some will be very recognizable to the audience.

Michael Purves-Smith has composed a concerto, Seven Deadly Sins, to be performed by the Wellington Wind Symphony next month. He has invested 650 hours or more into the composition, written for the alto clarinet. [Liz Bevan / The Observer]
“We will probably use some visual aspects to help the audience figure out where we are, but for some of the sins, the connection is pretty obvious,” he said. “First comes pride. When you think about pride, it is not hard to imagine that it comes right before a great fall. Then you have to think about how you would do that in the music. It has that pompous aspect to it, with the clarinet just climbing up into the higher octaves, then it just comes down.”

There were still six sins for Purves-Smith to cover, however.

“With something like gluttony, you have the main theme, and I am letting the alto clarinet ‘eat’ the rest of the orchestra. We will see how that goes, but I think it will work very well,” he said. “With sloth, that was a no brainer. There is a thing called minimalist music. It is very popular right now as people look for new ways to play concert music. This will remind the audience of Phillip Glass. Envy is all about copying one another, so I have created a feud with some suggestion of envy.”

The rest will be revealed on opening night on Apr. 30.

Writing Seven Deadly Sins wasn’t a selfish project on Purves-Smith’s part. He says he had the audience in mind through the writing process.

“It is enormously important to pay attention to the audience’s needs. Classical music in concert over the past 50 years or so has alienated a lot of audiences,” he said. “When I go to the symphony, I am always amazed by how much people are attracted to the more contemporary pieces. They are usually short because people definitely have a craving to see how they are represented. But I didn’t want to write something that would just assail the ears from beginning to end. There is a lot of music that has done that. I think that you want to try and incorporate as many styles from the huge realm of music as possible.”

The first performance of Seven Deadly Sins takes place at the Grandview Baptist Church in Kitchener on Apr. 30 at 3 p.m. The second performance will be at Knox Presbyterian Church in Waterloo on May 7 at 3 p.m.

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and free for students.

To purchase tickets, visit www.wellingtonwindsymphony.com. Single seats will be available for purchase at the door.

Liz Bevan
Liz Bevan is a reporter and photographer for The Observer. She has written for community newspapers in western Canada and has been published in national newspapers and magazines.