Tickets: $10-25 on BeMused Network

This Friday, the ever charming and affable Ensemble Polaris is performing at 918 Bathurst, with a cabaret-themed program — a slight departure from their usual Nordic-inspired repertoire and witty arrangements of popular classical and folk tunes.

Cabaret music may have been far from the members’ minds when Ensemble Polaris was first formed in the spring of 1997. Alison Melville, one of the founding members, says the group came about when a CBC producer recording the Northern Encounters Festival lamented that the event had lots of representatives from countries like Finland, Estonia, and Sweden, but little in the way of Canadian performers.

“I’ve always wanted to experiment with traditional music from Scandinavia and the Baltics with an interesting bunch of people and different colours of instruments,” Melville recalls saying to the producer, whose response was “if you can put something together that you think will work, let me know.”

So how does a group with a focus on Nordic music end up with a cabaret-themed performance? To Melville, the side trip makes perfect sense. “It’s what the Vikings did, too,” she says, pointing out that the Nordic tribes have ventured as far as modern-day St. Petersburg and Istanbul.

This particular cabaret foray began with the group’s guitarist, Marco Cera mentioning he’d love to do some pieces by Renato Carosone, a famous Italian band leader from the 60s and 70s – and had a good friend, tenor Francesco Pellegrino, who would be happy to perform with Polaris as a guest.

To put Carosone’s music into a broader context and expand the show’s appeal, the group drew from a variety of musical sources. Polaris member Colin Savage will be arranging select works from Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera especially arranged for this concert. Kirk Elliott will also have an arrangement of music by French jazz violinist Stéphane Grapelli in additional to some of his own original tunes.

Toronto-based jazz player and composer Andrew Downing, who last appeared with Ensemble Polaris when he wrote live accompaniment music for the silent Man Ray film L’Étoile de mer (The Starfish) for Polaris last year, will be returning with a series of short pieces based on that project just for this ensemble.

“It was really great music, we all really loved it, and he said at that time ‘I’m going to write you guys some short pieces,’” says Melville, explaining that the shorter works are meant to be played on their own, since it is not always possible to screen the film along with Downing’s music.

Here is a video excerpt of the same concert featuring music arranged and improvised by various members of Ensemble Polaris for the silent film Voyage à la lune by Georges Méliès in 1902, where you can hear two musical saws at one point:

Great music on the program aside, enjoying yourself at the performance is what’s at the essence of any Ensemble Polaris concert, and the experience they offer audiences has garnered them a strong following of adventurous and fun-loving concert goers.

“We get many, many comments saying that the people enjoyed themselves, and they say that the musicians look like they’re having fun.” While not specifically a kids’ concert, young audiences always have a great time.

“I would like the people to go away with feeling happier, and just feeling like whatever was bothering them all week at work, it’s not really that bad. And even if it is, you can let it go and have some fun.”

Tickets are $25 at the BeMused Network, with discounts available for students, seniors, and kids. Definitely the show to check out if you’re in the mood for some cabaret-themed fun!