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Concert review: Talisker Players' thoughtful programming shows off local singers' art

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Peter McGillivray sings with the Talisker Players at Trinity-St Paul's Church on Wednesday night (John Terauds phone photo).
Peter McGillivray sings with the Talisker Players at Trinity-St Paul’s Church on Wednesday night (John Terauds phone photo).

Toronto’s Talisker Players craft intelligent concerts that mix new and older music with texts that illuminate and deepen the experience. But for all the fine planning, the execution of their latest programme at Trinity-St Paul’s Church on Wednesday night left a little bit to be desired.

The guest vocalists — soprano Carla Huhtanen and baritone Peter McGillivray — were exemplary in a concert that revolved around departure and distance.

Themes such as these could lead to an overdose of melancholy, but the two best pieces offered up strong dramatic arcs that gave each singer an opportunity to show off the breadth of their craft.

The weakness on Wednesday evening was in the accompaniment. All of the instrumental work was for string quartet. Cellist Laura Jones and violist Mary McGeer were joined by violinists Elizabeth Lowen Andrews, Elyssa Lefurgey-Smith and Rona Goldensher in various permutations. But no matter which combination of violinists was on stage, there were persistent problems of intonation and ensemble tuning.

The careful craft and polish of the rest of the concert probably caused those tuning problems to stand in even higher relief.

The evening opened with Huhtanen singing a wonderfully smooth and unaffected rendition of Solveig’s Song by Edward Grieg, nicely arranged for the occasion by Laura Jones.

This led us to Toronto trombonist and composer Scott Good’s Deuil angoisseux (Painful Mourning), which sets an early 15th century text by Christine de Pisan. It’s a big work that deserves to be called a cantata for solo soprano. It was premiered by braoque ensemble I Furiosi in 2002.

The instrumental portions provide a nice undertow of bubbling tumult as well as melancholy under a vocal part seemingly written to show off Huhtanen’s finest attributes, especially her way to modulate a narrative, from a vocal slow burn to all-out lament. It’s a long, subtle musical arc that she masterfully shaped for best dramatic effect.

Peter McGillivray’s golden moment was in By Footpath and Stile, a cycle of poems by Thomas Hardy set by British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) when he was in his early 20s. Another substantial effort, this set of songs gave McGillivray an opportunity to express his full range, from rueful to triumphant.

McGillivray’s voice continues to grow in richness as well as intensity, and it was a treat to hear the current state of his art. This concert was a wonderful opportunity to be reminded how he and Huhtanen are two of the finest younger singers we have in our midst.

The other two works on the programme were interesting, but not utterly convincing: a set of three songs set by Toronto composer Walter Buczynsky lacked a narrative focus, while Poems to Martha, a set of four songs set by Viennese ex-pat Ernest Toch (1887-1964), were undermined by flaccid accompaniment from the string quartet.

Actor Stewart Arnott was poised and persuasive in his read interpolations throughout the evening, underlining the care with which the programme had been assembled.

John Terauds

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