The banjo licks that kickstart the new Nutcracker Nouveau album by Toronto’s Ensemble Polaris tell us loud and clear — and with the broadest possible wink — that this is not grandma’s Peter Ilytch Tchaikovsky.
That bluegrassy opening Trepak, arranged by Polaris multi-instrumentalist Kirk Elliott, is stuffed full of the unexpected, including a bit of vocalise and even a boisterously shouted-Russian toast to Tchaikovsky.
This musical party is a survey of the Nutckacker ballet suite, reimagined by the members of Ensemble Polaris as a let’s-sit-around-the-fireplace-and-have-a-good-time jam. Tchaikovsky’s original ideas are there, repainted in different musical colours.
In honour of the Russian Expedition subtitle, the suite is peppered with culturally-resonant extras, such as Marco Cera’s band-encompassing arrangement of Two Guitars.
The waltzing flowers are, I would argue, even more engaging as light-footed lasses accompanied by accordion, flute, clarinet and (I think) mandolin. And why not add a bagpipe to play both the sinewy opening to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as well as the Overture to the Nutcracker at the end instead of the beginning?
It’s all silly, cheeky musical mirth that miraculously never tips over the precipice into the ridiculous. It pokes fun at tradition while also respecting and honouring it. Nutcracker Nouveau is entertainment as well as a showcase of what imaginative musicians can do with even the most hallowed of traditions.
I also love the fact that no one in this happy band really cares which genre line they happen to cross at any given moment. So here’s to Na Zdorovie shots of vodka not just for Tchaikovsky but also for Torontonians Marco Cera, Kirk Elliott, Margaret Gay, Katherine Hill, Alison Melville, Colin Savage, Debashis Sinha and Jeffrey Wilson.
You’ll find sound samples and downloads for the album — released on Melville and Savage’s Pipistrelle label — here.
Ensemble Polaris is having a launch party, complete with a live set of Nutcrackery, at the Edward Day Gallery (952 Queen St W.) on Friday (Nov. 29) at 8 p.m. There will be a cover charge of $5. Info: 416-588-4301.
To send us out, here are the Polar-ized Sugar Plum Fairies (the recorded version, which evolved out of this early performance, is considerably more polished):