In review: The Talisker Players' Bestiary

In review: The Talisker Players' Bestiary

Jenna Simeonov

I went to a concert on Tuesday night, one of the Talisker Players‘ main concert series at Trinity St. Paul’s United Church. I’d never been to see the Talisker Players, but I was lured both by singers Norine Burgess and Geoffrey Sirett, and by the evening’s title: Creature to Creature. I’ve done a few animal-themed concerts, and the expressive potential of using animals to tell human stories is unexpected.

The repertoire was mostly unfamiliar to me, with a couple of exceptions, like Poulenc’s cycle Le bestiaire. I hadn’t heard the version for voice and chamber orchestra, so even that was a new treat for me. The concert featured, among others, sets by Lee Hoiby, Flanders & Swann, and Rossini’s inevitable “Duetto buffo di due gatti”. The programming was great, and I’ll jump right in and talk about my favourite set of the evening:

Alexander Rapoport’s _archy and mehitabel_ is a set for mezzo-soprano, baritone, flute, clarinet and string trio. The text is by Don Marquis, the guy who wrote the series of newspaper columns archy and mehitabel starting in 1916. Archy is a cockroach who writes poetry on a typewriter too big for him; he types by hurling his whole body at the keys, one at a time. Mehitabel is an alley cat, Archy’s friend and unofficial literary critic. Rapoport’s setting of selected poems by Don Marquis was curious and odd, but definitely compelling. The two characters were played by singers Geoffrey Sirett (Archy) and Norine Burgess (Mehitabel), and they had moments of dialogue, monologue and philosophizing on their animal states and artistic endeavours. I found it charming, and I’m now kind of obsessed with archy and mehitabel.

Mezzo-soprano Norine Burgess impressed me with a lovely sound in the Poulenc; I thought her sound was pleasing and rich, and she had surprising ease at the top of her range. Her singing of “Le carpe,” the final song in Le bestiaire, was still and stunning, and put me in a good mood for the rest of the night. She spent the rest of the night singing in English (I’ll discount “miao”), and I was impressed by the broad range of sound she brought to the stage. She put on accents, showed us clear characters; unfortunately, I had trouble understanding her text, and it clouded her efforts of interpretation. I missed it most in Lee Hoiby’s Rainforest, a beautiful and difficult set for mezzo-soprano, wind quintet and piano; she thrilled me a times with the power of her instrument, but I just wanted to be able to listen without reading along in my program.

Also collaborating with the Talisker Players was baritone Geoffrey Sirett. I’m a big ol’ fan of Geoff, and he didn’t disappoint me in this concert. He sang fiercely difficult repertoire, including Miriam Gideon’s set Creature to Creature, with juicy poetry by Nancy Cardozo; in this set Geoff used a huge range of vocal colour (and vocal risk!), delivering every letter of the text with specificity.

But really, it was in the Flanders and Swann songs that Geoff did what he always does the very best: tell stories. These songs had me in misty-eyed perma-smiles; I never thought a song called “The Warthog” would move me so much. And I wanted someone to sing me an armadillo-serenade. I mean, the songs themselves are genius. It really is difficult, however, to articulate the extraordinary thing that happens when Geoff delivers a song. I think the only valuable thing to say would be this: go and hear Geoffrey Sirett sing as soon as possible. (Side note: Geoff and I have crossed professional paths a few times in the last few months, and his depiction of animals is becoming an odd theme. I’ve seen him as at least two cats and a sheep so far.)

Between each set, actor Ross Manson delivered selected readings that set up or commented on the evening’s music. He read texts by Lewis Thomas, David Quammen and Caspar Henderson. I wasn’t familiar with the writings, but I loved leaning in and listening to a skilled speaker talk about what humans and animals have in common.

I had a delightful night. The Talisker Players sounded polished and adaptive, and their artistic goals as an ensemble are exciting to see. Put their series on your concertgoing schedule; at the very least you’ll hear polished performers playing something new in a beautiful venue.

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