Now in its twelfth season, The Ensemble combines classical music with modern tastes, reinvigorating the stereotypically antiquated genre with cultural relevance and contemporary appreciation.
The musicians, including pianist and artistic director Andrew Burashko, are all excellent in their own regard. But when playing together, they create a unified sound so flawlessly layered that it makes for a first-class sonic vacation.
Each performance of The Ensemble showcases the talents of a non-Ensemble Canadian performer, and Steven Page seemed like a perfect fit. As anyone who's explored beyond their hits and singles knows, the former frontman of The Barenaked Ladies has an incredible range and can evoke the whole spectrum of emotions using his voice alone. The prospect of hearing him sing virtually anything while backed up by a high calibre orchestra should surely be reason enough for fans to hand over their wallets.
But somehow, somewhere, something went wrong. The only connecting thread to the repertoire chosen seemed to be strange or dark subject matter. A song about a mother hating her child for ruining her figure, for example. Few songs were recognizable, which isn't necessary a complaint in itself. My contention is that, for the most part, when I did know a song (such as Randy Newman’s ‘Marie’), I was constantly and painfully made aware of how obtusely it had been arranged. In the case of ‘Marie’ — a song which lacks Newman’s trademark and oft disconcerting sarcasm and opts for reflective sincerity instead — was treated to a bizarre cacophony of instrumentation that stripped it of its heartbreaking honesty.
The artsy arrangements were often distracting and, given the occasionally optional presence of melody and a recurrent lack of lyrical clarity, one wonders if they complimented the original pieces at all. Whether these song choices were even worthy of the talents of those performing them is another question.
For the most part, the interplay between Page and The Ensemble was well-balanced, and it rarely seemed as if they were competing. This served to augment the unique ability of classical music to tell and shape a story without words, with Page’s voice simply becoming but another instrument.
The audience can tell that The Art of Time Ensemble is the product of a visionary director and his talented supporters. However the show seemed to sacrifice authenticity for experimentation in the name of art. And while I do not believe in the ‘vision’ of this particular concert, I have no doubt in the capacity of the concept to enthral and engage.