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Andrew Burashko, founder and artistic director of the Art of Time Ensemble, is preparing for the group's final iteration of their annual Christmas-with-a-twist presentation, To All A Good Night.Denise Grant/The Globe and Mail

It is indeed “good night” for the Art of Time Ensemble (AoTE). The acclaimed Canadian group, who have been fusing music, dance and theatre since 1998, are in the midst of their final season, bowing out with the last iteration of their annual Christmas-with-a-twist presentation, To All A Good Night, happening at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre from December 7-9.

Along with blending musical genres, AoTE have integrated various art forms in their live presentations. Figures from the worlds of dance, literature and theatre, from Peggy Baker to Margaret Atwood to Brent Carver, have been part of AoTE’s history, along with artists from the worlds of opera, jazz, pop and gospel. Among the group’s eight albums are a reimagined version of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (2012) and a tribute to Leonard Cohen (2018).

Founder and Artistic Director Andrew Burashko recently shared his thoughts on the ensemble’s history, the role of less-than-jolly material in a Christmas concert and why challenge is an essential part of programming.

Why did you start Art of Time Ensemble?

Initially what I wanted to do was drag classical music out of its silo. I was on track to be a concert pianist and in order to achieve that you have to have blinders on, so I spent most of my life in the practice room. When I started working with Peggy Baker, it opened other worlds; I saw how much more the arts interconnect and collaborate. I wanted to connect classical music to other artforms, hoping those elements would act as a way of disarming audiences intimated by classical music while providing context.

How much did that urge to blend art forms inform your programming choices?

I love eclectic programs, so you could say that many of our shows are variety shows. I chose to present the music of [Austro-Czech composer/pianist] Erwin Schulhoff because he was an avid jazz musician as well as classical composer and he was involved in the Dada movement; the February program features three of his works, one of which will be performed by Martha Burns. A past program of sacred music included work by Arvo Part as well as a collection of Black spirituals, a movement from Messiaen’s Quartet For The End Of Time, and a Baroque piece done with choreography. It’s always been about providing many disparate examples that hold the same essence, if that makes sense.

To what extent were the programs designed to educate as well as entertain?

It’s very conscious – but to use a more colloquial term for educate and entertain, it’s turning people on, introducing them to something that they might never have experienced before. I like to challenge people as well. For something to be really transformative, it can’t just be pleasant and fun. It’s good to make people uncomfortable every now and again.

Has that approach influenced To All A Good Night?

When I first put the Christmas show together it was really about choosing this crazy mix of songs that covered a far wider spectrum than just the sleigh bells-snow-chestnuts stuff. Also I imagined that unless you have a family to spend Christmas with, you are horribly alone; it’s the time of year when people really feel their isolation. There’s a great Tom Waits song, Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, a brilliant work we’ve featured as part of the shows. The program is about subverting the whole happy-Christmas thing, though it’s also music I love that I wanted to share.

But you’re not going to be sharing much longer.

Oh I’m far from done! I’m really excited to see what opportunities present themselves in the future. The function of art as we just discussed isn’t just to entertain; it’s to shake people up, to challenge people – as [composer Arnold] Schoenberg said, “If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.”

To what extent did the COVID pandemic influence your decision to make this Art Of Time’s final season?

It allowed me to slow down and question what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years. When there’s constant momentum and jumping from one project to the next, there really isn’t time to reflect on what you’ve done. But I do think there’s no substitute for live performance. Being in the same room as the performer, feeling the energy in the room … live-streaming is still live in that it’s happening in the moment and the audience doesn’t know what to expect but it’s not like being in the room with the performers – and [during the pandemic] I resisted doing them with every fibre of my being. But we are making an animated film, and the idea for that would not have happened were it not for COVID. It’s part of our show [about Germany’s Weimar Republic era] in February, a little legacy thing to leave behind.

Do you see a role for organizations that blend classical with other genres and art forms in Canada?

I can’t say, but I do think that approach needs to be the future of classical music. It needs to be brought into the modern era, and the best way I can think of doing that is by connecting it to other art forms – they all inform and enrich each other. Context is really everything.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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