Art of Time Ensemble’s “Vive La DiF’rance” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, December 13, 2008, Enwave Theatre, Toronto

The pianist, Andrew Burashko, sits at the dimly lit piano with his back to the audience and begins playing with delicate sweetness the melancholic opening bars of Cesar Franck’s “Prelude, Fugue, and Variation, Op. 18”.  The graceful melody floats up from his right hand balanced by the quietly voiced accompaniment from his left. A shadow on the stage separates itself from the darkness: Peggy Baker, though prone and motionless, gets our attention. She rises, circles herself, the stage, the piano, and takes up a perch on the edge of the piano bench. Andrew stops playing, turns to face the audience, gets up to leaves the stage, hesitates, comes back, and immerses himself in the wistful simplicity of the ‘Prelude.’ For the next seven minutes, as he executes a stark, ruminative Bachian fugue followed by a set of variations evanescent as the twinkle of starlight on rippling waters, Ms. Baker’s distraught spirit takes refuge in an array of contortions and embraces, until, as a finale, the pianist extends the hand of acceptance to her. Is she his affliction or his emanation? Does their question shape the performance or deform it? Anything is possible.

The dramatic possibilities of love and solitude continue to be explored, this time without the edge of distracting from the beauty of music excellently played, when Yegor Dyachkov joins his cello to Burashko’s piano for Debussy’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano.” Originally entitled “Pierrot fait fou avec la lune,” the ‘Prologue’s’ introductory fanfare on piano presents Pierrot singing and playing the guitar. Mr. Dyachkov’s cello follows with a slow lament, remarkable for the depth and intensity of feeling he shows throughout this performance. The piano throughout maintains an accompanying role that nonetheless reveals the sensitivity and rhythmic precision of Mr. Burashko’s art.

The ‘Sérénade’ shows the moonstruck Pierrot’s agitation and distraction. In the cello’s pizzicato, you can imagine Segovia’s guitar, and from the walking piano’s sometimes weird chords, you can imagine Picasso’s drooping blue and earthy Harlequin. Altogether, I found the dramatic interplay of this piano and cello duo somewhat magical. Mr. Burashko mentioned an interesting point about Debussy, who is thought to be the founder of musical impressionism. The point was that Debussy denied any connection between his work and the work of the Impressionist painters who were his friends. The fact is, as I listened to this music, I visualized Modigliani and Picasso, not Monet. Debussy’s music, though intensely rooted in work of French composers past, Rameau, for instance, also seems to prophecy the music of Ravel and Poulenc that came after him. Perhaps Debussy was not only of his time, but ahead of his time.

The music of Olivier Messiaen takes us to his “Quartet For The End of Time,” a piece worthy of its frequent performances in this centennial year of the composer’s birth. James Campbell and Steven Sitarski respectively join clarinet and violin to piano and cello for a very respectable and in some sense unique account of this cosmic piece of music. Although clarinet and cello get the main virtuoso parts that indeed earn a big ‘WOW’ for their contribution, what most impressed me was the tightly laminated unison of the ensemble playing, led through a range of shifts both subtle and wide ranging, by the piano. Perhaps that’s how it happened at the première when Messiaen sat with frozen fingers on a damaged keyboard in the Nazi prison camp where he wrote this work in 1941.

Franck, Debussy, Messiaen: the fourth Francophone composer saluted this evening is the Belgian-born Jacques Brel. Jonathan Goldsmith (piano), Rob Piltch (guitar), George Koller (bass), and Hugh Marsh (violin) put their shining heads together behind vocalist Martin Tielli in three of Brel’s songs including “ If You Go Away,” “Next,” and one about the monstrous parental family Brel left behind in Belgium when he went to Paris.
The ensemble’s arrangements are marvelous. Tielli’s performance persona is totally out there as he contorts to find expression for the music in his voice, phrasing and postures. He sang “If You Go Away” in a scratchy, breathy falsetto accompanied by grotesquely introverted gestures that emphasized the neurotic side of the character. During the next two songs my mind went to Don Martin’s cartoons for Mad Magazine, if anyone still knows what that was about. I suppose it suggests another way to be a weird Pierrot. Vive La DiF’rance.

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