Talisker Players: The Voyage Out reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, May 28, 2008. Trinity St. Paul’s, Toronto.

Talisker Players’ “The Voyage Out” is an elegant musical cruise through the realms traveled by poets Robert Louis Stevenson, W.B. Yeats, and Etel Adnan.

The song cycle composed by Ralph Vaughn Williams in 1904 on nine poems of Stevenson’s, my personal highlight of the evening, was sung by Alexander Dobson. His rich baritone allowed the poet’s deeply felt and beautifully balanced language to unfold like scenes carved in ivory and teak. Dobson’s performance compares favourably with the benchmark by Gerald Finley who sang the cycle at the Vaughn William’s Anniversary Concert in the Brighton Dome a few weeks ago, though the older singer has more fine silver and less brass into his voice. Peter Longworth, who joined his piano to the Talisker String Quartet, provided a necessary flow of light that sparkled in Stevenson’s “bright ring of words”

Derek Holman’s cycle of songs “Daybreak and a Candle-end” composed for Alexander Dobson and the Talisker Players (who premiered it this evening) is based on five poems by W.B.Yeats. Perhaps the expectation of hearing music to match magnificent poems like “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” and “Sailing to Byzantium” created a filter in my mind, but I could not ‘get’ what the music was supposed to be doing with the poetry except to bring it down. Dobson over articulated and overpowered the text. The string quintet sounded squeaky as Holman’s shifting tonalities and irregular metres flattened the sense out of Yeats’ harmonies. Halfway through the final poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” I had the good fortune to hear Yeats’ portentious lines “and therefore I have sailed the seas and come/To the holy city of Byzantium” come through. Clarity and pleasure continued to flow through the next stanza, until the amputation of the final lines that are the apotheosis of Yeats’ sacred song. I cannot imagine what Holman had in his lower chakra that inspired him to cut off Yeats’ final verse, because, as he says “To me the poem reaches a compelling conclusion in the third verse.”

The opening half-dozen notes of the bass-clarinet in Gavin Bryars’ “The Adnan Songbook” intimated that I was going to like this piece, and Monica Whicher’s performance sealed it, despite my feeling that the music seemed at times, too much for the words. Etel Adnan’s poetry is phrased in plain language (“The sun came in,” ” I went to the drugstore,” “we are not scared”); her statements are cryptic, her structures free flowing in a zenny way. Nothing about them suggests song. Yet, Bryars has woven them into a texture of his dirge like, droning harmonies that set your teeth on edge and soothe at the same time. The extended instrumental for viola that segués into Song III makes a totally convincing unit. Kevin Barrett’s classical guitar harmonics in Song VII, so delicate and ephemeral, stay in the mind. The harmony of B flat clarinet and strings in song VIII is gorgeous. Monica Whicher’s transparent soprano gave voice to the intimate and sometimes weird feelings the music was sharing.

Stewart Arnott provided continuity with genial readings of various prose texts that left behind memorable phrases such as “the incurable contagion of travel, “ and “the ache of unused energy” which somehow account for the restlessness that makes us leave the comforts of home for testing by the road.

The Talisker Players are:
Valerie Sylvester & Kathryn Sugden, violins
Mary McGeer and Karen Moffatt, violas
Laura Jones, cello: Eric Lee, Bass
Peter Stoll, clarinet/bass clarinet

Stage Director: Jessie Fraser
Stage Manager: Patti Marshall

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