He said/she said: Talisker Players, with Carla Huhtanen & Andrea LudwigReview
Jenna: Tuesday night, Greg & I went to hear the Talisker Players at Trinity-St. Paul’s on Bloor. The Players’ chamber series is always a guarantee for great performances and interesting programming, and this concert was no exception. Entitled Heroes, Gods & Mortals, the programme included two of my favourite singers to watch: Carla Huhtanen and Andrea Ludwig.
The rep had Greek mythology in common; music about Hercules, Aphrodite, Leda, Orpheus & Venus made up an impressive night. Actor Ross Manson read poetry and monologues to set up each piece. I like this touch in Talisker’s series; the moments of spoken word act like aural sorbet (plus, Manson has a satisfyingly clear speaking voice).
Greg: I have to say that I’ve always really enjoyed the Talisker Players’ shows that I’ve seen. They players are always top-notch, and play so well as an ensemble. Tuesday night was no exception. Heroes, Gods, and Mortals definitely lived up to the high standard of quality I expect from such a fantastic group of artists.
Jenna: The two singers alternated six pieces on the program, all of which were substantial, stand-alone works. Carla Huhtanen began the night with Alan Hovhaness’ stunningly beautiful Hercules, with Elizabeth Loewen Andrews on violin. The piece sucked me right in, and Carla’s performance was incredible. She showed technical mastery in a very un-boring way, with all of the pitch bending, straight tone and chest voice written into the part; it made the excxitement factor that much greater when Carla bloomed into her full top, which is some of the most exciting sound I’ve ever heard live.
Greg: First up Ms. Carla sang Hercules by Alan Hohvaness. This was a lovely setting for soprano and solo violin. I really enjoyed the juxaposition and the use of glissandi to evoke an earlier time in music. Carla’s skill in this kind of repertoire is unparalleled and she was able to create some of the most beautiful colours that blended and danced with Elizabeth Loewen Andrews violin. My favourite part was the energetic finale with tinges of Mediterranean gypsy and Armenian dance modes.
Jenna: Andrea Ludwig began with John Plant’s Invocation to Aphrodite. The Greek poem by Sappho herself was super sexy, asking Aphrodite for good luck with a lady (or if not luck, victory). With the piano quintet of Talisker players, Andrea sang with a clear, metallic mezzo sound, and she hung some beautiful high notes in Plant’s eerie and feminine sound palate. I loved Andrea’s two voices, her queen-like Aphrodite, and her throatier, more desperate-sounding Sappho.
Greg: This was a lovely setting in the original classical greek. Andrea Ludwig’s impressive range and colour wove it’s way throughout the piece giving us glimpses of a bright sparkling top and a warm easy middle and chest. The string quartet and piano played extremely well (as always) and the music made between the six was top notch.
Jenna: Carla came back for excerpts of Joaquin Turina’s Las Musas de Andalucia, with the Talisker Players forming a piano quintet (Elizabeth Loewen Andrews, bijan Sepanji, violins, Mary McGeer, viola, Laura Jones, cello, and Peter Longworth, piano). Again, Carla sounded full and powerful; Turina writes in this very declamatory way, but free like Italian verismo. There was wonderful chamber music happening with this piece; the quintet was hugely flexible, in that way that you can see happening on the fly. It doesn’t sound like much, but seeing this level of communication between musicians live is a thrilling thing.
Greg: I love me some Spanish composers. They always seem to be the most adept at infusing their cultures and traditions into their contemporary pieces. This piece really showed of the more full-lyric side of Huhtanen’s voice and it’s a side I really like seeing.
Jenna: Speaking of sexy songs, Andrea came back for Monica Pearce’s Leda Songs, set to text by Rilke, H.D. and D.H. Lawrence about the mythological woman who is seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan. Bijan Sepanji, Mary McGeer, and Laura Jones made up the string trio, with Peter Stoll on clarinet. The score was full of neat sound effects, and constant smooth, swan-on-the-water aesthetic. I thought Andrea adapted her sound beautifully, singing with a more feminine sound for these songs.
Greg: Leda Songs was probably the most existential/ethereal piece. Relentless harmonics and high-pitched long tones wove in and out with sparsely placed percussive aspects via a bass clarinet and the cello. I liked the piece, I felt it could use with a little more rhythmic variety. I felt like it was very easy to get lost in the piece as much of it sounded very similar. The execution of it however, was top-drawer once again and made my question why I hadn’t heard more from Andrea in the past.
Jenna: Carla finished her night with two recits and two arias from Pergolesi’s Orfeo, which I hadn’t heard before. David Sandall joined the Talisker Players on harpsichord. It was a treat to hear her in a genre that she sings just as well as new music. She had great ornaments and she was fascinating to watch. Also a bonus: Carla Huhtanen in a pants role.
Greg: Carla’s final piece of the night was probably the one most in her wheelhouse. A selection of recitatives and arias from Pergolesi’s Orfeo. So great to hear Carla sing a pants role and really let her coloratura fly. The quartet and harpsichord played exquisitely, perfectly recreating the feeling that I was in the salon of some Duke, Prince or wealthy Lord enjoying some private entertainments after a delicious banquet. This was the highlight of the night for me. If you get the chance to hear Carla sing early music, do yourself a favour and go. You won’t be disappointed.
Jenna: Andrea’s final set was Songs from One Touch of Venus, by Kurt Weill and arranged by the Talisker Players’ cellist, Laura Jones. I love Weill songs for what they are, with incredible texts by Ogden Nash, and dirty harmonies over back-ended beats. I thought this arrangement was pretty clean, maybe too clean for Weill; but Jones’ orchestration made these songs much more transparent and gentle. Andrea sang with a clear, speechy sound, and made it easy for us to get every important word. I wanted a bit more dirt from her, both as a singer and as an actor; perhaps adapting to this lighter arrangement, Andrea sang these Weill songs a little too well.
Greg: The show closed with Ms. Ludwig presenting a selection of four songs from Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus, with lyrics by Ogden Nash in a new arrangement by Talisker cellist Laura Jones. I love Kurt Weill (and I’m very picky about it) so I was keen to see Talisker’s take on it. The arrangement suffered a bit from the lack of piano or percussiveness which I feel is key to creating, finding and keeping the pocket which is the driving force of any Weill tune. I coined the phrase “The Weill is in the vamp” with Jenna that night. I also thought the delivery was a little too whitewashed and cutesy. Andrea sang them very well with exquisite technique, but there was some of Weill’s characteristic darkness that was missing and I think it was the missing link in what could be a very interesting take on one of my favourite composers.
Greg: Overall, do yourself a favour and check them out. Talisker always puts on a fantastic show of the highest quality - I had to remind myself regularly that I wasn’t listening to a recording - and it’s a shame that people aren’t clamouring to get in the door to these things. Hopefully we at Schmopera can help a little there, because people need to be hearing this stuff. Bravi Tutti!
Jenna: Like Greg says, these concerts should be packed. The artists are fantastic, and their programming is endlessly fascinating; I always hear something entirely new. The Talisker Players has wrapped up their 14th season, so be keep an eye out for the 15th.