Talisker Players offer the latest in a series of investigations of the meaning of life. What is it about this time of year? I pondered it a bit the other day, musing on February-phobia. In this country we’re driven in by the short days and cold weather. Into the house, into the mind, and rarely encouraged to be extroverted. Fat Tuesday notwithstanding, it’s Lent, and atheists too seem to be battered into a kind of passive submission by the SAD-ness of it all.
Saturday afternoon I saw the high-definition broadcast of Parsifal , presenting one formulation of the problem and its solutions. Saturday night was the turn of Against the Grain, in their double bill of Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments and Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared. Tonight, in the first of two presentations from Talisker Players, Time & Tide presents a series of reflections on the passing of seasons & persons. Forgive me if I try to link it all together.
Talisker’s world is not quite the one I sensed on the weekend, the modernist arc running from Tristan via Parsifal to Kurtág. There are other pathways, some dissonant, some still redolent with melody and the celebration of the voice.
We began with a crystalline reading of Solveig’s Song by soprano Carla Huhtanen, in a minimalist arrangement for string quartet by Laura Jones that filled the intimate space of Trinity St Paul’s Centre the way a diamond snugly fits against its velvet case. The Scandanavian connection—Huhtanen is Finnish rather than Norwegian like the composer—was an additional inspiration. That sense of contrasts and clarity was a wonderful omen for the evening.
Baritone Peter McGillivray sang two very different sets of songs. The first, Ernst Toch’s Poems to Martha, present a fascinating mix of melody and dense harmonies. At times the quartet created a stunning and vibrant sound, leaving the singer on the sidelines. There’s a song called “Spring” that is the mirror image to Richard Strauss’s better known song of the same name, a lovely backward glance to youth and the spring we remember. Toch refers back to these youthful images in the last song, a fervent affirmation of faith and rebirth. McGillivray showed flashes of brass, but was mostly a gently honey coloured baritone, dripping with legato. This was a thoughtful reading, nicely contextualized by Talisker’s inward looking framework for the concert.
His second set of songs, to close the concert, was a set which I am delighted to have discovered, Finzi’s setting of Thomas Hardy poems Footpath and Stile. McGillivray’s masterful reading easily blended with the transparent play of the Talisker Quartet (five players rotating in various parts of the evening; sorry that I don’t know which is which, although the five: Rona Goldensher, Elizabeth Loewen Andrews and Elyssa Lefurgey-Smith , violins; Mary McGeer, viola; and Laura Jones, cello). While Hardy sometimes points to darkness, Finzi’s folk-inspired idiom is never so dark that we can’t see the British landscape underneath.
Huhtanen also sang a pair of cycles, beginning with Deuil angoisseux, a powerful text from Christine de Pisan set by Scott Good in a kind of neo-baroque idiom. In places one feels the comfortable and familiar patterns of counter-point, episodes and the back and forth between voices as if this were a much older piece. And then just when you think you know where you are, Good throws a contemporary harmony or a syncopation at you to remind you that you’re not in Leipzig anymore. Huhtanen seemed at one point to be so overcome with the text that i thought she was crying: and then I remembered what a great actress she was, when I looked a little closer.
Huhtanen’s other cycle was a bit of a revelation, from Canadian Walter Buczynski. I met him once long ago, and have heard some of his music before. I know that he’s a wonderfully kind man from our meeting. What I heard tonight was lucidity. There’s a terrific phrase in one of the songs, where the soprano sings “is my purpose made large”. I couldn’t help thinking that this could be Buczynski, interrogating himself throughout, playing with forces even on this tiny and intimate scale of a singer with a quartet. So many times in the songs, he pushes us to listen ever closer, sometimes with a kind of back and forth between soprano & quartet where Huhtanen’s soft, clear delivery hung gloriously in the church space, like silver droplets between the chords from the quartet.
While it may be true that Time and Tide wait for no man, the program –Time & Tide—will be presented again Wednesday night at 8 pm at Trinity St Paul’s Centre. You should come hear it if at all possible.
Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 8 PM
Trinity St. Paul’s Centre: 427 Bloor Street West
Individual tickets: $30 / $20 (seniors) / $10 (students)
Box office: 416-978-8849