Tuesday, May 3, 2011. Trinity St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.
“Take care of the sense and the sound will take care of itself.” Lewis Carroll.
What if the sense is Non-sense? What will the sound be like? Well, it should sound like fun. This night The Talisker Players bravely presented a fun evening of nonsense-put-to-music, recited and sung by some fine, flexible voices: soprano Xin Wang, tenor James McLennan, and reader Graham Abbey.
The program was a blend of contemporary Canadian and established British works. Three of Dennis Lee’s poems from Garbage Delight, Jelly Belly, and Alligator Pie were set by Alex Eddington for soprano and string quartet (2002). Harry Freedman composed his comic chamber-music theatre piece Pan (1972) for piano, soprano, and flute around words drawn from North American Aboriginal languages: (nonsense to me if not to native speakers). Alexander Rapoport put music to his adaptation of the words of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. The evening’s title piece, Façade (1922) is an entertainment with music by William Walton and poetry by Edith Sitwell for reciters, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and cello. On the whole, The Talisker Players deserve great credit for mounting an ambitious project to entertain us that for the most part succeeded.
Every part of the program was framed by an hilarious in-character reading by actor Graham Abbey featuring Alice in conversation with various insane, inane, Wonderland/Looking Glass characters. Xin Wang, a striking, elegantly dressed warm-voiced soprano, mugged her way without inhibition through the comic sonics of Dennis Lee’s nonsense-for-kids verses. Alex Eddington’s music was both very ‘new’ and comic at the same time.
Xin Wang was joined by Ann Thompson on flute and Jeanie Chung on piano for Harry Freedman’s extended work, Pan, that required the three performers to extend the techniques of their instrument besides performing their functions as soprano, flute, and piano. Beer bottle over strings, stamping feet, whisper, cluck, and shout into the piano strings, pulling faces, acting out a comic episode. The music appeared to have the performers doing their different things at the same time instead of appearing to be their parts of the same thing at the same time. Kind of a deviation into the aleatory. It was fun to let go into the apparent random impulsiveness of the work. I especially enjoyed the movement into jazz mode when Xin Wang sang scat while the musicians comped behind her.
James McLennan, a clear and melodious tenor, sang and comfortably recited the parts of Rapoport’s Gnat, an entertainment in the spoofy, zany style of Johnny Carson’s the Magnificent Carnac skits. McLennan shared the vocal duties in Façade with Xin Wang . The direction of their work here left me a bit adrift. I have always loved the collaboration Sitwell herself [featured in the photo] recorded with Peter Pears in 1955. It has the same essential style of Façade’s first (1929) recording by Constant Lambert and David Lloyd-Jones. That style consists of keeping individual personality out of it, of eliminating self-expression and allowing the soundings of the words to come through their meanings in time with the music. In this way, the character of each singer remains iconic, as in Commedia dell’arte and therefore consistent throughout the varied moods of the 20 poems that make up the work.
Wang and McLennan each tried to be cute in various ways, failing to create their characters, and so lost the fun of the piece. The large ensemble that performed Walton’s exquisite potpourri of musical forms played expertly, but too loud, often drowning out the reciters, who sometimes resorted to shouting, which also did not please. It was a case of too much of a good thing. Nonetheless, The Talisker Players are a good thing, very much so, for sharing the risk of new material with audiences in Toronto where the serious classical and new music scene could use a deviation into nonsense. The performance will be repeated on May 4, 8 PM.