Thursday, January 29, 2009. Enwave Theatre, Toronto.
“I’m always trying to find ways of mixing things up, integrating the music with other elements to create programs that I really want to play and that nobody else is doing.” Andrew Burashko
Hearing music through Andrew Burashko’s ear is always an adventure. He works the centre and edges of the Romantic tradition—Schubert, Schumann, Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Schuloff, to name just a few composers whose works Burashko has mined for gems that need to be heard in the right setting, where they can be heard without prejudice. The right setting is the group of his friends—some of the leading classical, jazz and crossover musicians, composers, arrangers, songwriters, singers, choreographers, dancers and film-makers in the country—whom Burashko collaborates with under the name Art of Time Ensemble.
For this AoTE episode, Burashko chose a unique composition by Erich Korngold (1897-1957), a composer whose popular success writing film scores in America killed the reputation he’d won in Europe before World War II as a ‘serious’ composer. Happily, the time has arrived when it is becoming possible for large audiences to once again enjoy the extraordinary beauty of Korngold’s music, so rich in clearly stated melodies, and orchestrated with inventive touches that never fail to engage an open mind.
Korngold’s beautifully elegiac Suite for 2 violins, cello & piano left hand, Op 23 (1930) is unique for its grouping of strings as well as for the fact that it was written on commission for a one-handed pianist. The first of its five movements is a prelude and fugue stated first in a sombre, percussive piano solo that Burashko plays with both hands. Stephen Sitarski’s violin answers with emotion, then Thomas Weibe’s cello adds its mellow tones, arco and pizzicato, followed by a repeat in which Ben Bowman’s second violin sings. The mood is both grand and dire until a warm, lush violin solo broadens the musical path and a sparkling piano leads the movement to its close.
There follow a gorgeous dissonant “Walzer” redolent of ‘Vienna before the war’ with a touch of irony; then comes the central movement known as “Groteske” which the piano leads at a ‘chase’ tempo that sounds like Ravel’s goblin Scarbo at a Walpurgis Nacht hoedown and wild hayride. Against a long double-stopped chromatic drone on the cello, the piano plays the theme of a warmly nostalgic nocturne that carries over into the Rondo Finale chocolaty rich in four-voiced harmonies. The ensemble follows the piano’s lead at fast tempo over abrupt, broken rhythmic ground, bounces us into the air for a long take-your-breath-away pause, and affects a really happy landing.
The next part of the program belongs to singer-songwriters Danny Michel, John Southworth, and Martin Tielli. Each chose two tuneful themes from Korngold’s Suite for their songs. They were accompanied by the piano quartet (Ben Bowman replaced by violist Steven Dann) to which Danny Michel added his guitar. Michel’s songs, “Sailor Song,” and “Island Girl,” were arranged by Robert Carli. John Southworth’s songs, “The Adventures of Erich Korngold,” and “Athabasca,” were arranged by Andrew Downing and Justin Haynes. Both of Martin Tielli’s songs, “Lied” (meaning ‘song’ in German and ‘told untruths’ in English) were arranged by Jonathan Goldsmith.
The arrangers deserve special mention because the melodies extracted from Korngold by all three singer-songwriters were enhanced to an extraordinary degree in their settings as song arrangements. The accompanying music of the piano quartet sounded great as the songs came along. The songs, with their lyrics, not so much. Perhaps it was because the words were overwhelmed by the accompaniment and the lyrics were not clearly audible. Or perhaps it was because the music was underwhelmed by the words—the few phrases I did catch at this listening did not fulfill the promise of Korngold’s music. That promise is a land that deserves a lot more pioneering by artists and audience alike.