The Art of Time Ensemble played their final shows of the 2006/2007 season this past Thursday and Friday at the Harbourfront Centre. The group’s aim is to bring chamber music to new ears by blending it with other genres and new ideas, while retaining its elegance and intelligence. Andrew Burashko created The Art of Time as a way to “test my assumption that we could present chamber music in an accessible way.” Judging by the crowd they drew for Thursday’s Toronto Songbook show with Sarah Slean, they’ve succeeded, with audience members last week ranging from tweens to seniors.
Led by pianist Burashko, the ensemble also featured double bass, guitar, violin, saxophone (alternating with clarinet) and cello, with Slean lending her gorgeous vocals. The group played twelve contemporary songs that had received chamber-style arrangements, but rather than come across as cheesy (think “The String Quartet Tribute To…” series of CDs), the new versions highlighted the timelessness of each of the songs.
First up was “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” by Leonard Cohen, after which Slean proclaimed, “This is entirely the most enjoyable thing I’ve done in a long time—reading music as opposed to just closing your eyes and wailing.” It was apparent from the beginning that Slean’s sophisticated voice and quirky edge made her the perfect person to bridge the gap between classical and pop music.
The second song, “Lodestar” by Sarah Harmer, left the vocal melody nearly intact while giving it a whole new instrumental foundation. After a song by Ron Sexsmith, Slean took the mic off its stand to belt out “To Cry About” by Mary Margaret O’Hara, a performance that was the epitome of a torch song (in the best possible way). Then, a song by Hayden was up, before the group tackled “Monarch” by Feist, the title track from her little-known debut album, with a twinkling piano arrangement that occasionally resembled “Walking in Memphis,” and a beautifully complex vocal melody.
At the close of the song, the lights came up and the audience rose for intermission. Just one problem. “No no, it’s not intermission. You’re not paying attention,” exclaimed Burashko. It was the one low point of the evening—it came across as though he was talking down to the crowd, not a great idea when trying to convince people that classical music isn’t intimidating. The first half of the show then came to a close (for real) with an instrumental by Christos Hatzis.
The second half opened with a tango composed by saxophonist Phil Dwyer, and then it was on to more re-imagined versions of Canadian songs. The songs in the latter part of the show were slow and atmospheric, with a dark-sounding “No More Named Johnny” by Hawksley Workman standing out. After Slean joked about the somber themes of the night’s songs, they launched into Leonard Cohen’s “Dress Rehearsal Rag”, a song about suicide that produced one of the most moving, despair-filled performances Torontoist has ever seen, with Slean leaving aside the sweet vocals she had produced the rest of the night in favour of the shiver-inducing wail she had earlier joked about forgoing.
For an encore, a trio led by Slean performed a piece originally written for another Art of Time event, one in which various songwriters were commissioned to prepare works inspired by Schubert’s “Piano Trio in E-Flat.” If the idea and execution of The Toronto Songbook weren’t enough on their own, adding the Schubert-inspired piece to the evening further proved The Art of Time’s skill for bringing innovation to an art form that’s often dismissed as staid and boring. As a bonus, the concert was recorded by the CBC, so check Radio 2‘s website for updates on where and when you can listen in.
Photo by Renaud Corlouer.