Talisker Players: Puttin’ on the Ritz

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Talisker Players, that inter-disciplinary nexus for music & text, have made another crossover adventure. “Puttin’ On the Ritz” takes us into the world of Irving Berlin, in a series of songs sung by Bud Roach and Whitney O’Hearn.

I’d call it crossover for a number of reasons:

  • Because the songs don’t have anything like the usual sound –such as what you get from a piano, a jazz trio or a pit-band for music-theatre–because they’re instead arranged by cellist Laura Jones for the Talisker Players: a string quartet that includes Jones, violinists Kathryn Sugden & Elizabeth Loewen Andrews, and violist Mary McGeer, Talisker’s Artistic Director.
  • Because the singers are coming from a classical background
  • Because both Talisker and the venue (Trinity St. Paul’s Centre) are strongly associated with serious / classical music

Irving Berlin is surely a worthy focus for such exploration. Jones apologized at the outset to each of us that perhaps they couldn’t present our favourite Berlin song, considering his huge output in a long life (101 years old when he died in 1989 ). This is my favourite, a song that Barack Obama referenced in his first inauguration, bringing tears to a few million pairs of eyes (mine included) in the process.   But there are so many other possibles that weren’t included –as I heard from those sitting near me—that there was no way to satisfy everyone.

They dared venture into Fred & Ginger territory with the set before intermission. It was charming to watch Roach & O’Hearn take on “Top Hat”, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, “Let Yourself Go” and even “Cheek to Cheek”. Crossover is always a trade-off. While they’re not dancers, the trade-off? A full house eager to hear this familiar music sung by lovely voices.

Roach is the surprise for me, an early music specialist I wrote about a few days ago. The voice that is so apt for baroque Italian opera or song works really well with Tin Pan Alley. I am recalling comments I’ve heard about the older era of pop singers, and the way Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra sound as though they’d be fine singing bel canto. The sound begins from the words, like so many good Italian singers (and I’d include Bastianini, Protti and Sinatra in that group) all effortlessly intelligible in their text, with a sound that opens fully instantly, unlike the kind of sound you get from German voices. We’re always told that the Italian songs of the baroque are the ideal training for a voice, and I believe Roach is proof thereof. His gentle tone soars at times as though he were a modern-day incarnation of a matinee idol such as Dick Powell, although when he was having fun with us, his hammy delivery was more like Ethel Merman, effortless and wacky. Either way every syllable was as clear as speech.

O’Hearn’s singing was more like the singing one might have encountered in the earlier years of Berlin’s time, reminding me of an operetta star with a luscious full sound. While she was nowhere near as intelligible as Roach, it’s not really a fair comparison, considering that they were accompanied by a string quartet. Berlin’s songs are rhythmic, often syncopated yet with the string quartet there was a percussion deficiency that was only satisfied by the percussion in the singers’ consonants. In ballads O’Hearn’s luscious voice worked wonderfully, as in “Lazy”, with a very subtle arrangement from Jones to open the second half.

The program will be repeated again Tuesday January 13th at 8 pm at Trinity St Paul’s Centre.

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