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SCRUTINY | Echo Chamber Toronto Transforms The Night

By Stephan Bonfield on December 3, 2018

Echo Chamber Toronto at Artscape Sandbox, December 1. Choreography: Alysa Pires and Christopher Stowell. Dancers: Miyoko Koyasu, Felix Paquet and Ben Rudisin. Musicians: Lauren Eberwein, Soprano; Theresa Rudolph, viola; Carmen Bruno, cello; Rosebud String Quartet. Art installation: Paula Arciniega. Videography: Alice Hong.

There is a new and powerful musical voice on Toronto’s polymath artistic landscape. Under the artistic direction of Aaron Schwebel, Echo Chamber Toronto presented its first truly public showing after a successful warm-up outing last April, debuting early works Saturday night by Schoenberg, Hindemith and Beethoven set in new, integrative choreographed settings.  The title of the show “Transfigured Night Illuminated” turned out to be everything we might have imagined it to be, if not more.

With an exciting collaborative trust performed by some of the city’s finest dancers and musicians, including artists from the National Ballet of Canada, Canadian Opera Company, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Echo Chamber Toronto premiered a finely hewn choreography for dance trio set to themes of love and spirituality that braided fluidly throughout Schoenberg’s 1899 string sextet ‘Verklärte Nacht’ (Transfigured Night).  It was truly worth the wait until the end of the program for the sold-out crowd at Artscape Sandbox. 

With a nicely crafted choreography by Christopher Stowell, and put together with minimal time, the scenario placed due premium on the confusion the female protagonist feels, made pregnant by her former lover of brief consequence, but forgiven by her current long-term partner who pledges to raise her unborn child as his own. 

The music sparkled in Schoenberg’s plummy, luminous score, and was filled with copious harmonic detail from the Rosebud quartet (Aaron Schwebel, first violin; Sheila Jaffe, second violin; Keith Hamm, viola; and Leana Rutt, cello).  For the sextet, the ensemble added Theresa Rudolph, viola and Carmen Bruno, cello. 

Matching violent emotion and every nuanced spark of inner passion scrupulously well, dancers Jenna Savella, Ben Rudisin and Spencer Hack performed a phrase-by-phrase transfiguration of every emotional detail, summoning up the German modernist spirit with clear artistic vision in their close partnering, group crouching, and lyrical arm and shoulder flow.  This is what we were meant to feel and experience with Schoenberg’s music when turned into pure movement language.  Videography by Alice Hong was a welcome enhancement, adding signature metaphorical heft to the story’s poetic characterizations, all through upper body and headshots set in starkly contrasted whites with obscured grayscapes.

The concert best captured the unbridled experimentation of the burgeoning expressionist age with a psychologically suffused performance of Schoenberg’s finale taken from the Second String Quartet (1908).  Here, along with a taut but colourful ensemble (special kudos to Keith Hamm for his tone throughout), soprano Lauren Eberwein gave an engrossing and dramatic presentation of Stefan George’s transcendental “Entrückung” from his cycle Der siebente Ring (Rapture from The Seventh Ring), while she hand-painted over a small canvas on the floor with water-based bright colours, smearing an enamelled brightness on top of pre-painted acrylics, as if journeying through tone-colour within to soar outward to a new realm, as implied by the poem. 

She proved the Artscape Sandbox on Adelaide St. the ideal acoustic and atmospheric artistic playground.  If Eberwein sings and performs any poetry of this period, especially in such similar creative circumstances, check it out; she is the ideal modernist exponent of Schoenberg in art, sound, colour and pure passion.  She would do equally well singing Strauss lieder.

As proof, Eberwein sang the second movement of Hindemith’s Des Todes Tod, turning in another powerful performance of symbolic death and reconstitution, an exemplar of modernist philosophy set to a deep and enticing poetic musicalization from both the ensemble and her powerful instrument.  With the quartet, situated near the right-angle wall, the sound reflected ideally well up and through the medium-sized room.

The concert began with the Beethoven String Quartet opus 18 no. 1, and the Rosebud Quartet took the opening Allegro con brio with enviable control and an authentic tapered tone.  The ensemble say in diamond formation, two metres apart, making the acoustic a willing partner in their close blend of this early masterwork. 

The area in the players’ midst allowed the dancers to start inside the music, so to speak, and expand outward to make good use of floor space, which worked to good effect in the second movement’s Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato, one of two movements set to choreography by Alysa Pires. The romantic slow movement, often associated with Romeo and Juliet, was danced in close work and intimate lifts by Miyoko Koyasu and Felix Paquet as a series of variation duets, crafted in a sophisticated rondo form to match the paired voicings of the two violin lines. 

After the brisk Scherzo came another choreographed section, the finale Allegro.  While generally well-played, some of its spritely focus came harmonically loose in the coda, both in dance and in the quartet’s clarity, nevertheless the concept itself came off successfully well enough for its clear gestural movements stylized to the essence of the movement’s light-hearted atmosphere.

Best of all, I enjoyed the art installations by Toronto artist Paula Arciniega who managed to capture with directness and ease the transformative imagery of the evening’s night-time scenic inspirations.  Her canvases literally captured themes of transfiguration through forgiveness, all cast in the darker hues and colours of the century’s early modernist subconscious turmoil, but here no longer hiding underground. Instead, Aciniega’s work burst forth in an array of visualized sound and painted music. 

Her other painting, depicting Schoenberg’s Journey through time, space and atonality as psychological expression of the many forces within us, drew from modernist and even early futurist lines, but all in the spirit of an evening endowed with splendid, careful design, the kind of show that knows exactly how to describe the origins of a new artistic world.  Here was music of Schoenberg and Hindemith played perfectly as though it had been composed only for a twenty-first-century audience to appreciate fully.

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