You can count the number of annual cabaret evenings in Toronto on the fingers of one accordionist's hand. It's unfortunate that there are so few opportunities to sit through this particularly intimate form of performance -- especially when the accordion player is Mary-Lou Vetere.
Last night at The Annex Live, a cool restaurant-cum-lounge-cum performance space where the Poor Alex Theatre used to be, the 29-year-old Vetere showed off her remarkable skills in the company of fellow Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo area-based members of the New Berlin Ensemble, launching their first album, L'accordéoniste.
I only stayed for the first set of five songs, all drawn from the album, but all showed off a tight musical ensemble of people clearly in love with the eclectic repertoire, which spans the no-holds-barred grit of Weimar Germany (most closely identified with Kurt Weill), the sentimentality of Italian popular song from the turn of the 20th century and the chansonniers of France -- as embodied in Edith Piaf.
The group's vocalist is classical mezzo Kimberly Barber, who veers deftly from throaty pleas to full operatic flight, giving each song the right amount of dramatic heft. The partly improvised accompaniments were nicely executed by Vetere, pianist Peter Tiefenbach, violinist Julie Baumgartel and percussionist Carol Bauman.
It was Vetere who impressed the most, coaxing a seemingly impossibly wide dynamic and rhythmic range from her two accordions, defiantly grimacing in the face of anyone who dares not take seriously this instrument associated with polka parties.
The final song in the first set was one of Piaf's signature songs, the one that gives the album its title. Hearing the accordion live as Barber sang, one could really begin to understand the seductive power of its master as the singer loses herself in its song.
This is the sort of show that deserves to get a regular night at a regular haunt. Unfortunately, the busy musicians can't make that kind of commitment at this point. If they could, they might be able to convert a new audience to the pleasures of hearing about love, betrayal and redemption in a close-knit, informal setting.
The new Berlin Ensemble performs the album next on Aug. 3 at the Ottawa Chamberfest, which kicks off July 25.
Aside from a Facebook page for L'accordéoniste, there is no electronic source of information on the album or the group.
In the show yesterday, Barber mentioned an excellent YouTube clip of Piaf singing "L'accordéoniste" on the Ed Sullivan Show. Here is is:
John Terauds started at the Toronto Star as a freelance writer in 1988, and has been on staff since 1997. He began writing on classical music in 2001, and has been the full-time classical music critic since 2005.
He is also the organist and choir director at St. Peter's Anglican Church, a parish founded in 1863 in downtown Toronto.
If he's not listening to, writing about or playing music, it means he's either asleep, unconscious, walking his dog -- or all of the above.
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