Talisker Players: Songs of Travel

My own song of travel is not a purposeful one, but a bit of a spontaneous adventure. I hope I can be forgiven for meandering around this theme of wanderings.

As of 6:00 p.m. I thought I was going to a CD launch in the suburbs. I had just been to a play rehearsal, a passionate display of talent from the students, emerging into the traffic chaos that is Toronto in 2014. While this can be a good thing –such as trips to and from the downtown sufficiently long to permit me to hear the entire Diabelli Variations in Stewart Goodyear’s new recording—it’s a daunting prospect if you’re getting onto the Don Valley late in rush-hour. And trips are never quite so enjoyable when you’re fighting a migraine (dogging my every move for the past 24+ hours, whether I go north south east or west). No I didn’t want to go to the launch, nor did I really want to drive home.

I was flummoxed because I just wanted to curl up in a ball.

And then I remembered that Talisker Players’ first concert was also happening tonight, just a few short blocks away from my office. The venue is such a friendly place, at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre, that  I thought I’d be fine: and indeed my headache was gone, at least until I ventured outside afterwards. If I don’t sound sympathetic or cranky in what I write I beg your indulgence, because of the throbbing in my forehead.

Lo and behold, the program is called “Songs of Travel”, a series of songs & meditations upon the theme. Talisker Players have a kind of formula that I have surely disrespected in previous reviews. They combine songs around a theme with poetry and/or prose spoken by a skilled actor or orator, whose speaking serves as connective tissue for the musical offerings. For the actor serving up this cartilage it must be challenging enough, knowing that you’re competing with –for example tonight—Virginia Hatfield & Geoffrey Sirett, without the additional insult of someone like me, who has barely acknowledged their contribution in past concerts. Today I was especially aware that I wasn’t really listening, because I was relying upon the music as a kind of creative aspirin. Derek Boyes was the actor/reader, who hopefully didn’t notice the guy way in the back row, who wasn’t being especially attentive as we started (..but at least I kept quiet).

I’m very fond of Talisker’s multi-disciplinary approach, peeling distinct layers off of their topic. Tonight was no exception. Among the glories of the program was the observation –not remarked upon by the programmers but manifest in the notes—that roughly half of the composers on the bill were women. That’s already a trip, no?

In the course of the program we were presented with more than two voices: because the widely divergent rep pushed the singers to use different sounds. And so while there were two singers present, we heard at least four voices (as I shall explain in due course).

Le Sommeil d’Ulisse is one of a series of Cantates françoises from composer & librettist Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Ulisse being one of the greatest voyagers of all time.

Soprano Virginia Hatfield

Virginia Hatfield was indeed the reason I wandered to this concert instead of the other one. Hers is a flexible instrument of great accuracy, one I’ve heard as a soprano soloist in Messiah, as Marzelline (Fidelio) and long ago at U of T in the title role of Alcina (an interpretation that compares favourably with the professional voices I heard at Opera Atelier just this week). As we approach the next COC event to choose members in their Ensemble Studio, I can’t help mourning the voices who wander away. Hatfield is a former Ensemble Studio voice who would be welcome in almost any production. And from the first note, Hatfield didn’t disappoint, her warm tone easily filling the space, her smile reaching the back of this church where I sat like Quasimodo, curled around my pain.

I started to feel a lot better, seduced by this lovely composition that I’d never encountered before.

The next item was also from a female composer, namely excerpts from Vally Weigl’s “Songs of Love and Leaving”, sung by Geoffrey Sirett. This congenial set –also settling me into the warm space—was lovely. I stopped scowling and opened my eyes.

The following piece on the program was one that had my back up for a bit, a brave bit of programming that for me was one of the highlights of the night, once I got over being a resistant old fart about it. Hm, maybe I should let you read what I say as you may think I am still being a resistant old fart.

Here we are again, encountering Canadian culture. It’s different somehow lately. Has Canada crossed an important threshold of self-worth? Lately I see less and less of the apologetics that used to be our primal response. I saw the Colville show presented between shows of, first Bacon & Moore, then Michaelangelo & Rodin. I’m sure Colville’s own eyes would bug out, observing what heady company he’s in. And I made a comparable observation at Esprit Orchestra’s concert, juxtaposing Adès & Ives with Paul Frehner and Chris Paul Harman.

It’s the same with the Canadians on this program, who were my favourites: Lightfoot, Mitchell, Tyson and Applebaum.

First came a trio of popular songs. In case you didn’t recognize those surnames, I’m speaking of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Ian & Sylvia Tyson, whose songs were arranged by Talisker cellist Laura Jones for two voices, oboe and string trio.

The songs? “Early Morning Rain”, “Blue Motel Room” and “Four Strong Winds”, the latter song giving the cycle its name. Of the three, I felt the Joni Mitchell song in the middle, the jazziest of the three, fared best at Jones’ hands, although it also served as a wonderful showcase for a completely different kind of singing from Hatfield. The singing in the other two was splendid –Sirrett & Hatfield—but less is more in this sort of thing. I found the accompaniments too busy, getting in the way of what we really want to hear, especially in the closing song: the singing voices (but it’s a matter of taste; you might like them!).  Both Sirrett & Hatfield were using totally different sounds in these songs.

After intermission we were in a completely different place thanks to Louis Applebaum. It’s funny, I met him on a train once long ago. There he was near me on the train to Stratford, with a score in his lap. I smiled at him, and because I recognized the famous face, asked the obvious question. “You’re Louis Applebaum” and he smiled. I apologized for bothering him but he said he wasn’t really busy and we chatted for awhile. I am remembering this other story of travel from a million years ago –in the 1980s—in appreciation of what I heard tonight. His score “Algoma Central” is totally wacky, in a good way. The piece has wordplay that reminds me of nothing so much as The Bald Soprano, Ionesco’s playful piece from the 1950s, except that it’s built out of Canadian place names. With that charming text, we’re then immersed in the sound world Applebaum creates with a harp & flute teasing out the sounds from the soprano, who at times echoes in the space as though in a train station. I wonder if the piece has ever sounded so beautiful. I felt it received a fair hearing, and respectful treatment even if in some respects it’s like a big game that Applebaum is playing with us.

Our travels concluded with Sirett and Ralph Vaughan Williams, namely the “Songs of Travel”. I think for many in the audience this was the highlight of the evening (and is the piece giving the name to our concert program after all), even if I had stronger loyalties to the journeys undertaken on Canadian soil.

Talisker Players and their Songs of Travel will be back Wednesday October 29th at the Trinity St. Paul’s Centre.

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One Response to Talisker Players: Songs of Travel

  1. Pingback: Addio Butterfly | barczablog

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