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Album review: Suzie LeBlanc's love affair with Elizabeth Bishop yields rich musical offspring

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Suzie LeBlanc.
Suzie LeBlanc

Today marks the official Toronto launch by Centrediscs of a remarkable album by a remarkable Canadian: soprano Suzie LeBlanc. Everything inside I am in need of music is an eloquent testament to love, devotion and determination.

The easy source and target of all that attention is poet Elizabeth Bishop, born, educated and buried a Massachusetts Yankee (1911-1979), but who spent a portion of her childhood with grandparents in (tiny) Great Village, Nova Scotia, after her father died and her mother was institutionalized because of mental illness.

Elizabeth-Bishop-006Bishop went on to become one of the most admired American poets of the mid-20th century. Her Canadian years were hardly noticed by Canadians themselves until LeBlanc chanced upon Great Village and its famous childhood visitor in 2007.

Like so many momentous events in people’s lives, this chance encounter in an off-the-beaten-path locale sparked something in LeBlanc’s heart. It quickly grew into a desire to highlight Bishop’s Canadian connection, her beautiful poetry and the always endangered art of the art song.

I am in need of music is all that — plus one more thing: a clean view straight into LeBlanc’s artistic soul, which turns out to be a magical place to spend some time.

The magic begins with the 11 poems set to music by five Canadian composers.

needBishop’s writing is a sweet example of musical composition with words. Even read silently, there is a natural rhythm, flow, eddy and texture to how syllables and sounds emerge and slip past.

Even a love note, something that for dignity’s sake should rarely be seen except by the four eyes for which it is intended, comes out a delicately sculpted treasure.

This is “Close Close” set by Alasdair MacLean in the opening, three-song cycle, Silken Water: The Elizabeth Bishop Suite:

Close close all night
the lovers keep.
They turn together
in their sleep.

close as two pages
in a book
that read each other
in the dark.

Each knows all
the other knows,
learned by heart
from head to toes.

MacLean has, like everyone else in this project, somehow managed to enhance the natural music in this poetry. In many ways, each poem is such a concise, powerful expression of a particular state that it’s possible the composers felt they had no choice.

From a purely musical perspective, the results are not earth-shattering. The pieces are tonal, largely gentle. Many might pass unnoticed if you did not stop to smell the delicate fragrance of words well matched with new music in each piece.

MacLean wrote a masterful instrumental introduction to his suite: “The silken water is weaving and weaving,” which sets the album’s whole tone: suspended in another time, a familiar one not too long ago, yet too far away to reach without fully engaging the imagination.

Toronto composer Chistos Hatzis’s Four Songs stand out for their overt alliance with long, flowing melodies. The sounds are so filled with description that it could be movie music. There is a flesh-and-blood connection here, too, which ties us not to airy concepts but a real human who lived and loved passionately.

The other three pieces on the disc are: John Plant’s setting of Sunday, 4 a.m., an extended dream sequence that is the disc’s longest composition, at 15 minutes, and the hop-and-skippy Sandpiper, as well as Emily Doolittle’s masterful A Short, Slow Life, which focuses on the physical side of a poem about two lovers being jolted out of their once-upon-a-time bliss (“…till Time made one of his gestures; his nails scratched the shingled roof, Roughly his hand reached in, and tumbled us out.”)

Canadian composer, conductor and pianist Dinuk Wijeratne leads the “Elizabeth Bishop Players,” a 17-member chamber orchestra. Sandpiper‘s instrumental score is beautifully rendered by pianist Robert Kortgaard and clarinetist Mark Simons, while Sunday 4 a.m. is played by the Blue Engine String Quartet.

And then there’s LeBlanc, draping her clear, luminous voice over these beautiful arrangments, drawing also close into her enchanted poetic circle.

Much new music needs multiple listens and some determination to appreciate. This album is different, offering something to grasp easily on the first listen — and then yield more insights as one listens again and again.

What a pleasure.

You can find out more about the album here.

There is a companion DVD with a 30-minute vlog of LeBlanc and Linda Rae Dornan (a Sackville, NB-based artist with a similar passion for Bishop’s poetry) crossing Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula on foot in 2008, trying to follow in the footsteps of a 21-year-old Bishop and companion in 1932. It’s very home-movie, but does drive home how, when we are obsessed, we truly want to get to know everything about the object of our obsession.

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This truly has been a labour of love for LeBlanc, who gave up performance opportunities and spent her own money to commission the songs and make the album possible (she also raised money when and wherever possible).

The soprano has included a nice explanatory essay in the CD booklet, which concludes with: “We found the composers, or they found us, with the same serendipity that had led me to Bishop in the first place.”

To provide more of an idea of how the album came about, here is LeBlanc’s promotional video for the album project:

John Terauds

 

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