LUMINATO’S “A Poe Cabaret” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, June 9, 2009, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto.

The opening night crowd of glitterati cramming the lobby flowed like uncorked bubbly into the theatre (arranged like a cabaret) and gathered in congenial groups at cloth covered tables to rubberneck and drink till the lights went out.

The Art of Time Ensemble’s Andrew Burashko and friends had a table beside Esprit Orchestra’s conductor Alex Pauk with his wife Alexina Louie, one of the evening’s featured composers, and their family. Roman Borys, cellist with The Gryphon Trio (Music Director of the Ottawa Chambermusic Festival) moved around the room chatting. Various ‘Luminaries’—the well heeled sponsors in attendance—were thanked by Luminato CEO Janice Price for helping to make this the third largest multimedia festival in the world.

Ms. Price reminded us that Luminato is about making exciting discoveries. My discovery of the evening was an innovative work by a sadly overlooked French composer, brilliantly performed by the Penderecki Quartet and virtuoso harpist Lori Gemmel.

Andre Caplet (1878-1925) is known, if at all, as the arranger of some of Claude Debussy’s compositions. If not for the ‘Poe theme’ of this Cabaret, we would not likely have discovered his Conte fantastique for harp and string quartet (1908), based on Poe’s story The Masque of the Red Death. The rippling arpeggio’s and distinctive timbres of the harp infused the texture of Penderecki’s strings and entranced the mind to imagine without actors, singers or words, Poe’s parable of ubiquitous plague death entering a place of entertainment somewhat parallel to our own situation this evening.

Again, thanks to Poe, we got to enjoy another performance of music for harp and strings as The Penderecki and Ms. Gemmel performed Alexina Louie’s The Raven, co-commissioned by Luminato and the Ottawa Chamber Music Society. Tom Allen’s earnest reading  made  Poe’s ‘gothic’ post-traumatic love poem sound like Dr. Seuss. The good of it was I had to focus on appreciating the magnetizing drama of Ms. Louie’s music and the wakeful combination of harp and strings.

Beyond seeing the Poe Cabaret as a vehicle for introducing music for string quartet and harp, I can’t say much good for the rest of the evening. First off, Poe is so Vincent Price. Then, the archaic English of his poetry, declaimed in a Canadian accent in the broad manner of Stratford or The Shaw Festival, well, I just couldn’t get into it.

It’s always nice to see and hear Patricia O’Callaghan, that’s for sure. There were promising moments in the musical monologue as Mark Campbell’s libretto based on Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart was ably sung by Tenor Sean Robert Clark to subtly discordant music composed and performed by Lance Horn. Mike Ross as Master of Ceremonies, Director Lorenzo Savoini and his crew went all out to find ways of putting this show across.

But for the music, it was a Poe show. The audience (to quote Bob Dylan) “Started out so fine, but left looking just like a ghost.”

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