10 Questions for Mary McGeer

Mary McGeer is Artistic Director of Talisker Players Chamber Music, General Manager and principal violist of the Talisker Players Choral Music Orchestra, also principal violist of the Huronia Symphony, and performs with a wide variety of other ensembles in and around Toronto, from baroque to contemporary. McGeer was a member of the Phoenix String Quartet for 10 years. She is a teacher and chamber music coach, in Toronto and at the Soundfest String Quartet Institute in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Click image for more info about “Creature to Creature”

If you’re a Talisker regular it won’t surprise you to discover that in additional to her musical background, McGeer also holds an MA in history and political science from Carlton University, has worked as a journalist and editor, and continues to write reviews and programme notes occasionally.   Originally from the Saguenay region of Quebec where she began her musical training on piano, she completed the Diplome Complementaire from the Universite de Laval.

On the occasion of Creature to Creature –Talisker Players’ next program upcoming March 16 & 18—I ask McGeer ten questions: five about herself and five more about her role as Artistic Director.

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

I’m built like my mother, but I think perhaps my facial features are more like my father’s. Personality? – that’s an open question!  A little of each is the quick answer.

Both my parents grew up in Vancouver, but they moved east after they were married, and I grew up in the gorgeous Saguenay Valley, north of Quebec City.

Violist Mary McGeer, Artistic Director of Talisker Players

Violist Mary McGeer, Artistic Director of Talisker Players

2- What is the best thing & worst thing about being artist director of Talisker Players?

There are several best things.  Working with a great ensemble of musicians who have become close friends over the years would be first on the list.  Working with singers (our guest artists, many of whom have also become friends) is also fabulous.  The human voice is a glorious thing, in and of itself – and then there is the fact that they sing words, which adds a whole other layer of depth and meaning to the music we play with them.

I love researching this repertoire too – discovering new pieces and composers (and frequently new poets as well) – and building programmes.  And working with composers, talking to them about texts they’d like to set, getting a glimpse of how they think about words, music and instrumental colour.

The worst things?  Constructing rehearsal schedules.  And above all, the endless struggle for funding!

3- Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I spend quite a lot of time watching Turner Classic Movies.  Especially screwball comedies, but anything will do if it was made before about 1960.  The dialogue alone is so different from today’s movies – not to mention the clothes …

Much of my listening is music I’m working on, or thinking about programming.  But when I’m kicking back I most often turn to big-band jazz and the great popular singers of the 1930s and 40s.

4- What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I wish I were better at current technology … sort of (I have a love-hate relationship with my electronic devices).  And I wish I could sing.

5- When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

Reading. Anything – the newspaper, magazines, novels, history, memoirs.  Also, getting outdoors, even if it’s just a walk around the block.  And spending time with friends and family.

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Five more about Talisker Players’ upcoming concert “Creature to Creature” March 16 & 18.

1) Please talk about the challenges in curating & performing a complex and literate series of programs for Talisker Players.

Our programming starts with the music.  Over the years, we’ve built a huge catalogue of vocal chamber music repertoire, cross-referenced in subject categories based on the texts.  From there, we build thematic programmes – but each has to be balanced for vocal and instrumental requirements, and also varieties of musical styles, etc.  Often we’ll think we have a terrific programme, and then realize that it needs four different voice types, or way too many different instruments – or perhaps worse, that all the music is the same instrumentation.

Sometimes we start with a particular piece, and then build a programme around it.  Everyone in the ensemble has a bucket list of pieces they really want to do.  The Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings was on the list for several of us … also Les Illuminations (that was mine especially), and the Mahler Songs of a Wayfarer, in Schoenberg’s arrangement for voice and 10 instruments, Murray Schafer’s Minnelieder.  But of course, for every piece like that, there are several that we programme because they look kind of interesting, or just because they fit a particular theme – and then we discover that they are brilliant, and that is in some ways even more rewarding.

Once a programme is in place, there are all the issues of booking singers and players, juggling dates, and eventually, the rehearsal schedule.  Our programmes typically include at least a dozen singers and players, in six to eight pieces, each one with a different combination of performers.  Each piece gets its own rehearsal schedule, and it all comes together only at the dress rehearsal.

And then of course there are the readings.  In an odd way, choosing them is one of the most satisfying aspects of the process, because they tie the whole thing together.

2) What do you love about Talisker Players?

First and foremost, working with my colleagues.  Building programmes is interesting and fun, but the real payoff is putting the music together in rehearsal.  Once we’re there, I’m not so much the artistic director as just one of the ensemble, and it’s hugely rewarding to work that way – sharing ideas, shaping the music together.

We all love working with singers, too.  The relationship of music to text is endlessly fascinating, and the way they approach technique is often very illuminating.  Also, they tend to have a much more concrete sense of how to connect with an audience.

Norine Burgess

Mezzo-soprano Norine Burgess (photo credit: Johannes Ifkovits)

The singers on this programme are especially wonderful.  This is our third programme with Norine Burgess, who is one of Canada’s great vocal artists, and a joy to work with.  Geoffrey Sirett is a new discovery for us – and a very exciting one!

3) Do you have a favourite moment in the upcoming program?

I have known the songs of Flanders and Swann since my childhood, so the four animal songs on this programme are especially close to my heart.  Laura Jones, as always, has done fabulous arrangements for us.

Don Marquis, creator of Archy & Mehitabel

I’m also very attached to Alexander Rapoport’s new piece about Archy and Mehitabel.  Archy, the philosophical cockroach, and Mehitabel, the disreputable alley cat who was his sometime pal, were the creations of newspaper columnist Don Marquis, and very popular in the 1920s.  Rapoport’s piece brilliantly expresses the courage, the pathos and the sleaze of these characters.

And then there is Poulenc’s little gem, Le Bestiaire.  It’s a setting of short, enigmatic poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, for voice with flute, clarinet, bassoon and string quartet.  Eight performers, six movements – all in less than five minutes!

I’ll stop before I name every piece on the programme!

4) Talk about the upcoming program (Creature to Creature a 21st-century Bestiary) as a human in a world we share with animals. 

There’s a wonderful quote from Lewis Thomas, in his essay The Medusa and the Snail:  “We tend to think of ourselves as the only wholly unique creations in nature, but it is not so.  Uniqueness is so commonplace a property of living things that there is really nothing unique about it at all.”

5) Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?

Composer Alexander Rapoport

Many wonderful teachers and mentors have influenced my personal approach to work and performance.  As artistic director, I am constantly inspired by the work of other organizations, large and small.  So much great work is being done these days in the arts.

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Talisker Players’ next program, “Creature to Creature”, will be presented at 8:00 p.m. March 16 & 18th at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre.

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