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Sailor songs and cyborgs and Viennese puff pastry


At Enwave Theatre

in Toronto on Thursday

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Nicholas Goldschmidt, the great Canadian impresario who would have turned 100 last month, told me once about visiting his friend Erich Korngold at a Hollywood recording studio. Korngold was conducting one of his movie scores, which as usual was laced with Viennese-style waltzes. Glancing at the music, Goldschmidt said: "Erich, why do you write waltzes in 6/4?" - a measure double the usual length. Korngold replied: "The copyists are paid by the bar."

Hollywood paid Korngold a very good living for his Oscar-winning scores in the thirties and forties, but it also extracted a penalty. After his collaborations with the likes of Errol Flynn (in Captain Blood), the composer whose early talent had prompted "awe and fear" in Richard Strauss was widely written off as a hack.

A Korngold revival has been simmering for the past couple of decades, mainly through recordings of the operas and instrumental pieces he wrote when not writing for the big screen. Canadian James Ehnes won a Grammy last year for an album with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra that included Korngold's lavish Violin Concerto.

The Art of Time Ensemble lifted one more corner of the veil on Thursday, with a performance of Korngold's Suite for Two Violins, Cello and Piano. This entertaining five-movement piece shows a little of everything he was as a composer. Parts of it are quite

advanced-sounding, with aggressive rhythms, and harmonies that might still have seemed outré in 1930. Others are as sweet and weightless as Viennese puff pastry.

My favourite bit, in the first movement, is the part in which a dour canon blithely segues into what sounds like a classic movie love theme. Korngold's first appointment with Hollywood was still four years away, but you can see where he was headed.

As if to emphasize that there's still life in Korngold's music, Art of Time director Andrew Burashko invited three singer-songwriters (with funds from CBC Radio 2) to write songs based on the Suite. Burashko has done this before with pieces by Schubert and Schumann, though at the Schumann show last year, most of the new songs reacted more to the rock-'n'-roll side of Schumann's life (drug addiction, madness and early death) than to his music.

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The songs this time were all based on melodies from the Suite, and arranged for voice and piano quartet by professional arrangers. Martin Tielli, Danny Michel and John Southworth each played two songs, each of which spiralled off in its own intriguing way from the source.

Southworth's Athabaska, arranged by Justin Haynes, was a sinister, surreal number about cyborgs and werewolves, and hobbits stuffed in oil barrels. I don't know what it all meant, but its evocation of a strange and beautiful world was completely convincing.

Michel and arranger Robert Carli found a charming, bittersweet sailor song in one of Korngold's melodies. It was amusing, when Michel began his second song about a Latin American café, to hear Burashko say, "We're starting slower, actually" - possibly the first time Michel has been overruled onstage by his backup band.

Tielli's two songs exuded a fine perfume of dislocation and vulnerability, though I had more difficulty catching his lyrics than I usually did when he was singing with the Rheostatics. John Goldsmith's arrangements were just as silky and assured as Korngold's originals.

I found Southworth's fraught Adventures of Erich Korngold frankly unbelievable as a portrait of Korngold's inner world. This was a man, after all, who responded to Max Steiner's comment that Steiner's music was improving in Hollywood, while Korngold's seemed to be getting worse, by saying, "That's because you've been stealing from me, and I've been stealing from you."

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