May 2005

The Art of Time Ensemble
The Music of Erwin Schulhoff • Andrew Burashko, Artistic Director
May 8, 2005 • Glenn Gould Studio • Toronto
Hot Sonate for Alto Sax and Piano (1930) starts off with a kind of urban heavy downtown traffic sound like you get in Gershwin’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Burashko on piano lays down a percussive cabaret dum-datta-dum-da, dum-datta-dum-da beat and Phil Dwyer’s smooth alto sings a pretty melody over it, and works it expertly up into a late night bluesy wail. Very solid 30’s sound.

Concertino for Double Bass, Viola and Flute (1927). Joel Quarrington on Bass and Steven Dann on Viola set a foundation for Susan Hoeppner’s flute. We are in a world like Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun”. The music is very personal. The thought occurs at this point that Schulhoff, who was persecuted, all but silenced, and finally murdered by the Nazis in Wülzberg concentration camp, has left behind part of himself in this music. You can hear his mind in the music as the flute keeps trying to rise above the low frequency growl of the strings – the sudden force of circumstances – like a bird with a broken wing in a storm, like St. Exupery looking for a hole in the hurricane during his last doomed solo mail flight over Africa.

As Fascism developed and took hold in Germany, Schulhoff joined the Communist Party, and like his contemporaries, Weill and Schönberg, was labeled a ‘degenerate’, i.e. a socialist Jew. In the third movement of the Concertino, viola, bass and flute engage in a querulous conversation as if three friends were discussing emergent politics in a café, sometimes in agreement, sometimes diverging, but all melancholy with foreboding of the not-so-good. The music is articulate and sad, tender, and searching as if for an exit or a rest. The fourth movement, a Rondino – allegro gaio – with Hoepnner alternating flute and piccolo, develops the inherent nervous tension of the piece into an energetic dance towards an up-tempo ending. Here, as at every point in the concert, the applause was, deservedly, over-the-top enthusiastic.
It is said that of all the modern classical composers who experimented with jazz, and everybody did, Schulhoff was the most successful because he really got into it as a piano player. For a time, in the late 30’s, Schulhoff worked in Prague under an assumed name, in radio as a jazz pianist. His Five Jazz Etudes for Piano (1926) played solo by Andrew Burashko include among their titles: ‘Charleston’, ‘Blues’, ‘Tango’, and ‘Toccata sur le Shimmy “Kitten on the Keys”'. The pieces, though all very different, did not display their jazz roots in any obvious way. Burashko’s energetic playing brought out the fluidity, the rhythmic moodiness, and the passionate, colourful complexity of the pieces, which could point to a jazz-based inspiration.

The showpiece of the evening was the String Sextet (1924), with Marie Bédard and Stephen Sitarski on violin, Jethro Marks and Max Mandel on viola, David Hetherington and Thomas Weibe on cello. It is an ensemble of this caliber that earns The Art of Time the reputation for being the ‘highest in high-end chamber (with-a-twist) ensembles. The piece opens in tones of Bartokian conflict and anxiety, a swirl of emotion as if a stricken butterfly were spiraling down out of space into silence. Utterly engaging and beautiful. In the second movement – Tranquillo Andante – a creaky mid-register keening backed by darker tones emerges like the voice of a lost being, wandering ghost-like but not quite despairing, calling out of flittering chaos.

The energy of Schulhoff’s original minimalism manifests in the third movement with the sounds of the massed energies of machines moving toward a goal with purpose and locomotive drive despite high register complaints that are eventually drawn into the main thrust. Anxious violas lead the way in the fourth movement with dark rumours that are picked up by solo cello touching off a hubbub of muted tones, hushed conversations and furtive asides. These subside into an atmosphere of fog insinuating itself into the stones of waterfront alleys and dockside streets.

What a triumph of expression! The audience thundered its pleasure. Schulhoff’s star has been rising for some time now in Europe. Thanks to Andrew Burashko and the members and guests of The Art of Time Ensemble, this unique and uncompromising composer’s music can enter more deeply into our awareness on this side.

We welcome your comments and feedback
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Report by
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Stanley Fefferman
for The Live Music Report

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