Art of Time Ensemble SONGBOOK II: Steven Page reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

June 20,2008, Enwave Theatre, Toronto.

I like writing “I am Andrew Burashko’s greatest fan.” The shows he creates around Art of Time Ensemble excite me. His best idea, so far, is to raise pop music to the level of chamber music.

For some reason, these days, I do not enjoy listening to pop music, probably because musically I’ve lost interest in it. Too repetitive. It’s like your favourite breakfast flake or granola. If the ABC flavour hits your sweet spot, you get into that groove, and some ABC in your bowl hits the spot every time. My pop music spot seems to have worn off—none of it really touches my any more. It’s kind of sad, but that’s how it is.

The trade-off is I have grown a huge and tender spot for art music, especially chamber music. All it takes to hit my sweet spot is a great voice, adventurously crafted music, and a fine ensemble. That’s what I get with SONGBOOK II.

The particular ingredients of my pleasure are: Steven Page using his voice like a tenor; some unusually thoughtful pop songs with intelligent lyrics, each arranged in rich tones with gutsy changes by a different high class arranger, played with gusto by a chamber sextet with some of Canada’s best musicians at the oars. What a trip!

The first half of the program offered four songs chosen and sung by Page backed by the whole ensemble, and Prokofiev’s “Sonata in F minor for violin and piano” with Burashko and Steven Sitarski. The most musically interesting song was Elvis Costello’s “I Want You,” arranged by jazz/rock/classical saxophonist Robert Carli. It had a recognizable Costello sound but enriched and enhanced with weird discordant sequences, Sitarski bowing ghostly sounds ‘sul ponticello’, and Page singing the phrase ‘I want you’ so softly at one point you’d believe he might be whispering it on his dying breath.

Page’s own “Running Out of Time”, co-written Barenaked Lady colleague Ed Robertson and arranged by Cameron Wilson, violinist with the doomed CBC Radio Orchestra, has some upbeat piano runs by Burashko, works itself through Phil Dwyer’s clarinet into an ardent frenzy, and gives full voice to Page’s bravura tenor. A very high moment, followed by ‘something a little different’: four movements of a Prokofiev minor key violin and piano sonata.

This dark, intense, brooding work rises to peaks of excitement and passion that you feel as starkly contrasting textures of the music. Fast violin scales scamper over blocky piano chords, sometimes like fleeting lizard feet, sometimes like tremulous winds whistling among gravestones. Lyrical passages alternate with bitter dissonances; tentative passages build to explosive climaxes. Flow, staccato and virtuosic pizzicato contribute to unceasing surprise and delight for the musical palate.

Here is an unexpected effect. The Prokofiev was such a dose of the what I call, perhaps from prejudice, ‘the real thing’, that the ‘pop’ performances after intermission paled a bit by comparison no matter how good they were in their own right. I began to notice a kind of uniformity of mood in the songs and the textures of the arrangements. Also, Page, known for his articulation and tonal range did not seem well served by the sound setup that seemed to blur the words and keep his voice corralled in a brassy, somewhat airless register. Nonetheless, pleasure flowed.

Stephin Meritt’s “ For We Are the King of the Boudoir” got Steven Page to clown in front of a mirror and the light comic opera quality of the piece made me laugh, which is a good thing. Who but Phil Dwyer would have the minerals to arrange the tone rows of a tune co-written by Philip Glass and Paul Simon and make it sound like Glass but different? Rob Piltch added some memorable woodwindy electric guitar riffs towards the end.

Composer Gavin Bryars took on re-arranging Leonard Cohen’s waltz “The Singer Must Die,” with its incredible lines like in ‘the hinge of her thighs, /where I have to go begging in beauty’s disguise’. Jane Siberry’s “The Taxi Ride” arranged by Glen Buhr came off as passionate, imploring, and desperately real. Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” arranged by Robert Carli had an interesting opening with moaning low strings covering a single note piano ostinato, rising through dissonant wildwood guitar percussive riffs to a crescendo/decrescendo on cello and clarinet that brought the audience to its feet whooping and hollering.

As the I Ching would say “Grace has success. Perseverance furthers.”

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