For even the most ardent rock, pop, country or rap fan, there is still something undeniably moving about classical music. It can inspire or terrify us in film scores, sooth our jangled nerves at the dentist and enhance a romantic meal. But while Mozart and Debussy are often the go-to standards for the general public, there is an exciting world of contemporary classical composers creating beautiful and daring new work.
Toronto’s Talisker Players have spent the last 20 years exploring such new compositions even as they celebrate classical music’s rich and varied past. Along with a program that highlights works by Shostakovich and Beethoven, this diverse ensemble of instrumentalists has also commissioned new pieces each season by contemporary composers like Toronto’s own Craig Galbraith, who won the Karen Kieser Prize in 2004 for The Fenian Cycle.
Talisker generally collaborates with singers, and the group’s work with choral groups has been a mainstay of its efforts since its founding by violist Mary McGeer.
“It was kind of accidental in the beginning,” McGeer confesses. “I was asked to book a small group to accompany a church choir as a one-off, and it was fun. After a few of these gigs, one of the players said, ‘If I could spend the rest of my life playing choral music I’d be happy.’ So at that point we put a name to it, and here we are.”
While the Players generally concern themselves with the classical genre, one of their most successful annual outings is their Pops series, which have in the past featured songs by Noël Coward and Cole Porter. This year’s season celebrates the works of Irving Berlin in an evening entitled Puttin’ on the Ritz.
“We have two singers this year and a string quartet,” McGeer says. “Our cellist Laura Jones has written the most incredible arrangements for ‘I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning’ and ‘Anything You Can Do.’ And, of course, we have the songs that were made famous by Fred Astaire, like ‘Top Hat’ and ‘Let Yourself Go.’ We call it the Fred and Ginger set.”
Mezzo soprano Whitney O’Hearn will be joined by tenor Bud Roach in singing a generous selection of hits from Berlin’s extensive catalogue. There are 23 songs listed in the Puttin’ on the Ritz program, making for an exhilarating tour through the composer’s biggest hits and lesser-known gems.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” McGreer says. “The series is really classical, basically, and we used to have only three shows a year. But these bonus fourth shows have become so popular, and we love doing them. And the music is just so wonderful.”