Creature to Creature

Talisker Players’ program themed around the animal kingdom titled “Creature to Creature” was better than expected.

I should explain, because I love Talisker.  Why lower expectations?  Classical programs using music about animals usually condescend. Such compositions –however excellent—are relegated to playing comic relief, are infantilized, elicit mugging in the usually repressed world of classical concerts.  Or they are shuffled into a category sometimes known as “light music”.

That’s not what Talisker did, and thank goodness.  Only the closing set—by Flanders and Swann –caved in to the usual kind of broad comedy, and of course these songs earned the biggest applause of the afternoon.

And the featured creatures at the heart of Talisker’s matinee were “archy and mehitabel”, Alexander Rapoport’s adaptation of some of Don Marquis’ best known pieces for two singers, flute clarinet & string trio.  It’s a great choice of text even if it’s been done before.  But as we’ve seen with films of Shakespeare or Austen, a good text inevitably generates multiple adaptations.

I can’t deny I was resistant.  There’s an ambiguity on the page that disappears in performance, so any adaptation of a favourite book or poem must collide with preconceptions.  For example, I wouldn’t have given a cat who says “toujours gai” an American accent: or at least that’s not how I read it when I first encountered it years ago.  But Norine Burgess persuaded me, making a compelling case for Rapoport’s intriguing combination of styles in “the song of mehitabel”, using a voice that was sometimes decidedly feline, usually American, yet with the injured dignity of reincarnated royalty.  Geoffrey Sirett was every bit her match, although I think I wasn’t resisting his performance quite so much, as he sounded very much the way I would have expected archy to sound.

Composer Alexander Rapoport

I hope Rapoport’s composition gets further hearings, either in this kind of concert setting or perhaps with a fuller staging.  Coming the day after a matinee performance of Puppetmongers’ March Break show, I couldn’t help thinking that “archy & mehitabel” could work wonderfully with puppets (and please don’t accuse me of condescension or infantilizing in that formulation, because I don’t see puppets as something only for children. They should be part of a director’s toolkit, and something I’ve used in opera stagings on more than one occasion), or perhaps as a soundtrack for animation.

Rapoport’s songs give me hope, considering how original music sometimes vanishes without a trace after a single hearing.  The one place I had a tiny concern –and it’s minor—is that the last song had a somewhat pretentious & academic sound that struck me as a mismatch with the text, even if it was still catchy.  But overall his use of instrumental colour showed off the Talisker ensemble to great effect, while the texts were wonderfully lucid and among the most intelligible phrases sung all afternoon.  I’ll be hoping to hear these songs again someday, whether live or in a recording.  They deserve to be heard.

There were no weak spots in the concert, displaying Talisker’s usual combination of sung texts and readings by actor Ross Manson, juxtaposing different styles & periods:

  • “La Bestiaire, ou Cortège d’Orphée” by Francis Poulenc, setting poems by Apollinaire
  • “Creature to Creature” by Miriam Gideon, setting poems by Nancy Cardozo
  • “archy and mehitabel” by Alexander Rapoport, text by Don Marquis with supplementary text by the composer
    –intermission–
  • “Duetto buffo di due Gatti” by Rossini
  • “Rainforest” by Lee Hoiby, setting poems by Elizabeth Bishop
  • “Songs from The Bestiary” by Donald Swann (arranged by Laura Jones), text by Michael Flanders
Norine Burgess

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

The most intense music-making of the afternoon followed the intermission, first in a splendidly convicted and deadpan reading of the well-known Rossini duet, followed by three Hoiby songs that are new to me.  I can’t help wondering about the vicissitudes of programming, the choices by artists to sing a particular composer while ignoring another.  Hoiby (as well as his mentor Menotti) and their tonal approach appeals to me very much, even if it was a Tempest by English composer Adès rather than American Hoiby that premiered at the Met last season.  I suppose it’s a matter of who will champion you –singers championing composers, and perhaps vice versa—as a new generation of directors favour their own composers.  Burgess sounds wonderful singing Hoiby.  The three inter-connected songs of “Rainforest” meander about in tonal language that shows Hoiby’s usual sensitivity to the text.  Where composers of previous generations get caught up in introductory rhetoric, these songs are very direct, wonderfully expressive in their pulsing rhythms and bold use of instrumental timbres.

Talisker Players, Burgess, Sirett and Manson will be back at the Trinity St. Paul’s Centre for the Arts at 427 Bloor St West Tuesday March 18th.

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