by Colin Eatock
The WholeNote - Toronto, November 2008

In an interview over brunch in a Bloor Street cafe, it soon becomes apparent that Mary McGecr isn't used to a lot of public attention. (She's a violist by trade, and we all know how much attention violists get.) Yet it soon becomes apparent that she's very proud of the musical organization she founded: the Talisker Players.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of the two organizations she founded: the Talisker Players Choral Music Orchestra and Talisker Players Chamber Music. While they both share the name "Talisker" and employ some of the same musicians, structurally they are two completely different entities. The orchestra came first, and is now in its fourteenth year. "It started," McGeee recalls, "when I put together a pickup band for a choral conductor. Another choir heard about us, and so I put together another one. I used violinist Valerie Sylvester as concertmaster for both of those. And I remember Valerie and I were walking out of the hall and she said to me, 'You know, if I could spend my life doing this repertoire, I would be perfectly happy.' That's when the idea was planted that this was something we could specialize in and get really good at. We began to think about it that way , and we gave it a name."

These days, the Talisker Players Choral Music Orchestra plays between twenty and thirty engagements per year, accompanying choirs with instrumental groups ranging from four to forty playe rs. In town, they've performed with the Toromo Classical Singers, Orpheus Choir and the Tallis Choir, among many others. Further afield, they've been engaged by choirs in Peterborough, Midland, St. Catharines, Georgetown, Orangeville and Kitchcner.

Better known to Toronto concert·goers, however, is the chamber· music series - which, as McGeer explains, wouldn' t have happened without the orchestra. "We started Talisker as a loosely configured ensemble that worked with choirs, and somewhere along the way someone said. 'You know, there's a lot of interesting music for voice and chamber ensemble - you should start a series.' It was the beginning of the end of my life!'

That was nine years ago. And in a city where chamber-series come and go like commuters at Union Station, Talisker Players Chamber Music has succeeded in carving out an enviable place for itself: a three·-conceri series (with two performances of each programme, on consecutive nights) at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre, that attracts a loyal audience.

In large part, this is due to the series' unique programs, which are comprised of works composed for voice and small instrumental groups. The performance of this repertoire is the cornerstone of the series - but McGeer confesses that, at the outset, she didn't know much about it. "We knew about a few pieces for solo voice and chamber ensemble that are famous," she notes, "such as Vaughan Williams' On Wenlock Edge, Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and Barber's Dover Beach. But we didn't know what else was out there. We wondered if there was more, and started to do some research. We discovered an amazing repertoire that hardly ever gets done - because once you get beyond voice with piano, things get complicated. We did a couple of trial concerts: people came, and they liked what they heard ."

Thanks to the years she'd alrendy spent running the Talisker Players Choral Music Orchestra, she was already well acquainted with Toront0's freelance musicians. She assembled a core group of players who frequently appear on the series: violinists Valerie Sylvester and Rona Goldensher, cellist Laura Jones, flautist Anne Thompson, clarinetist Peter Stoll, bassoonist Christian Sharpe, oboist Vicky Hathaway, hornist Neil Spaulding, percussionist John Brownell, and pianist Peter Longworth. McGeer plays viola - and many other musicians have also performed. Of course, singers are also needed. But, according to McGeer, that's the least of her worries. "In Toronto that's not a problem," she states. "We've got some absolutely amazing singers. Not all of them want to do this kind of repertoire, but the people who want to do it really love it - and don't get much opportunity to do it," Some of the finest singers in Toronto have graced the series, including sopranos Krisztina Szabo, Teri Dunn and Jennie Such, mezzos Vilma Vitols and Norine Burgess, and tenor Colin Ainswonh. Also intergral to the Taliskcr Players chamber series is the idea of thematic programming: concerts are built around a unifying idea, such as Night Songs, A Medieval Tapestry, or Rumours of Peace, among many others. "It's just obvious, remarks McGeer. "With vocal music, you're dealing with text - and this led to finding a common link in the repertoire. "

Sometimes specific poets have served as themes: programmes of various composers' settings of texts by William Blake or Rabindranalb Tagore, for example, But more frequentIy, the theme is a central concept: Perfect Propriety was a lighthearted look at modern etiquette, and Spirit Dreaming was inspired by indigenous peoples from around the world .

To underscore the focus of Talisker's concerts, performances always include a narrator who reads texts related to the subject at hand . "For the first concert," says McGeer, "we asked the singers to do some readings. We very quickly discovered that singers are not trained readers - it 's a whole different art, so we started to use actors instead. The narrator also has a second purpose: with so many changes to the stage set-up during concerts (often a new configuration is needed for every piece), he or she reads while the stage is quietly rearranged.

Although the theme acts as a unifying force on each program, the contentcan be remarkably diverse. Schubert, Beethoven, and Faure have been heard on Talisker programmes - but so also have Harry Somers, John Burge, and Daniel Foley. In the last nine seasons, Talisker has commissioned fifteen new works from Canadian composers, all of which have been performed alongside works from other locales and eras. (English music seems to hold a special place in McGeer's heart: Brilten, Bax, Vaughan Williams el al have often been presented.)

"We started commissioning Canadian composers from day one," says McGeer, "when we had a gap in a programme, or if we had some poetry that seemed perfect, but I couldn't find a setting of it. Now it's just as likely that composers will come to us with ideas." McGeer is quick to point out that Talisker Players Chamber Music isn't a contemporary music ensemble. "New works are presented in a context that's not about new music per se," she says, "and I think that's a very effective way to introduce new music to a general audience. People come to our concerts and are surprised when they liked something that they wouldn' t have expected to - and it's partly beCause of the way they're drawn into the programme."

In the last few years, Talisker Players Chamber Music has started touring, playing at summer festivals in Elora and Ottawa, and at Festival Vancouver. As well, the group has been appointed artists-in-residence at the University of Toronto's Massey College. They can also be heard on a recent ly released CD (Naxos 8.559371), performing American composer Gloria Coates' Cantata da Requiem.

As well, McGeer mentions the group's outreach performances. "We present smaller versions of our concerts at Regent's Park. We do performances in shelters and dropin centres for homeless people - places that are way below the radar of most arts groups. We're often stunned by the response we get, because there are so many people there who understand and respond to music."

Talisker's next concert (the first in the 2008-09 season) is The Lost Generation, on November 11 and 12, and will include the world premiere of Juliet Hess 's The Poplars, for voice and piano quartet. Looking to future seasons, McGeer hopes to expand the number of performances per year. To be sure, she's not running out of ideas, commitment or repertoire.

"One of my favourite things about the series," she explains, "is tracking down music. The more research we do, the more music we uncover. It's a treasure trove - almost all of it written since the late nineteenth century. We've had many adventures contacting libraries and publishers around the world. And we' ve done a lot of music that's unpublished or out of print. "

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and writer.

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