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Review: The eclectic and ambitious Art of Time Ensemble

Andrew Burashko, Art of Time’s artistic director.

Handout photograph

Concerts by the Art of Time Ensemble can be the most confounding and confusing in the city. This year alone, Art of Time has presented a dramatization of Orson Welles's 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, performed by Sergei Prokoviev's grandson, Gabriel, in DJ sessions, and re-created – beautifully – the arrangements that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn made of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. All in a night's work for this supremely creative group.

The problem with Art of Time is neither its eclecticism or its range – both are highly welcome in a pretty conservative classical music town. What's problematic about the group is that often the finest presentations are paired with material that is of another level of quality altogether. The cleverly mounted Welles broadcast had a pedestrian suite of music by Bernard Herrmann as its lead-in. The Prokoviev concert featured works by other composers not up to his standard. Consistency is not an Art of Time hallmark.

And this same lack of follow-through was evident in Art of Time's latest offering: Schubert –Source and Inspiration. The Schubert show is a re-mounting of an idea that Art of Time Artistic Director, Andrew Burashko came up with a few years ago. Pair a Schubert masterpiece – his Trio in E flat major – with responses to the Trio created by half a dozen leading Canadian singer-songwriters. It's a good idea – all of Burashko's concepts are good ideas – but once again, the artistic quality of the evening was uneven.

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But not bad. Don't think I'm being overly critical of Art of Time – I wouldn't miss one of their shows. And Friday night proved why – when the group is good, they're very good. And on Friday night, what was good – superb even – was the performance of the Schubert Trio that gave the evening its foundation. Andrew Burashko has become such an inventive programmer, we forget he made his reputation as something of a piano prodigy. With Burashko on piano, Benjamin Bowman on violin, and Rachel Mercer on cello, we heard a Schubert Trio of immense power, drama and style. In the last year of his life, knowing he was dying, Schubert wrote music that hovered at Heaven's door – sometimes with honeyed sweetness, trying to seduce it open, other times with tortured anguish, trying to break it down. Burashko and Company were up to all the work's challenges – a stunning performance.

And the glow of that performance spread over the singer-songwriter half of the program, where performers as disparate as Danny Michel, Carole Pope, John Southworth, Gregory Hoskins (singing songs of Martin Tielli) and Andy Maize provided their own take on the Schubert, often by utilizing melodies from the classical work itself, with Burashko, Bowman and Mercer providing accompaniment But as the songs unfolded, the glow started to fade. Some of the songs were beautiful, and creative (I especially liked Michel's and Southworth's offerings), but the world of pop music and that of the classics are different – they move in different orbits, with a different chemical composition. Pop concentrates on surfaces, on elaborating the moment – the classics move in the depths – and the hope in bringing them together is that each will illuminate the other. Instead, I found on Friday night that they tended to cancel each other out. The pop material, rather than add to the Schubert, tended to dilute it with a series of fine, but unrelated moments. The concentrated heat of the first half of the concert dribbled away.

There's something about reaches exceeding grasps that makes one extremely sympathetic to the Art of Time. Creativity should never be discouraged in any group. And next year's offerings by the group, announced earlier this week, look as interesting as ever. Branford Marsalis will be making an appearance with the group, a concert will explore the intersection of music and the sacred, the dance of Peggy Baker will be highlighted in another. The concerts all look worth attending. Let's hope that from beginning to end, they keep up Art of Time's ability to surprise and move us.

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