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It felt as if my entire brain was being constantly stimulating. I know, sounds rather peculiar. But the fact I was listening to music I had never heard before, words I had not read before, and having someone perform and read them, made them come to life.

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On Tuesday night, I had the pleasure of attending the Talisker Players’ latest concert Creature to Creature. The programme was inspired by the medieval Bestiary, or “book of beasts”. A Bestiary is meant to hold up a mirror to human nature by using the traits of animals to serve as examples for human conduct.

For those of you not familiar with the Talisker Players, they are a unique ensemble who love to collaborate with singers, and present the music of living composers. Their productions are thematic, and always include elements of the spoken word. Poetry, memoirs, letters, essays, read by professional actors, are woven into the programme to elaborate on the theme and give a dramatic narrative to the production.

Texts were chosen by the composers to complement the music in last night’s programme. The “creatures” we got to know included poets, philosophers, lovers and even operatic rivals! The music and words carefully depicted several poetic perspectives, such as, irony, reflection “quasi-scientific detachment”, and appreciation for creatures that are both like and unlike us.

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“We tend to think of ourselves as the only wholly unique creations in nature, but it is not so. Uniqueness is so commonplace a property of living things that there is really nothing at all unique about it.” ~ ‘Are we unique?’ from The Medusa and the Snail by Lewis Thomas

The evening began with an excellent excerpt by Lewis Thomas which set the tone for the evening, followed by Francis Poulenc’s Le Bestiare, ou Cortège d’Orphèe, a setting of Guillaume Apollinaire’s very short, surreal verses about various animals. Other works in the programme included Rainforest by the American composer Lee Hoiby, a setting of prose poems by Elizabeth Bishop about three creatures of the tropics whose lives are oddly linked, and Songs from The Bestiary by Donald Swann, arranged by Laura Jones with text by Michael Flanders.

The centrepiece of the programme was the premiere of Archy and Mehitabel, a new work commissioned by the Talisker Players from Composer-in-Residence Alexander Rapoport. This famous collection of early 20th-century newspaper columns by New York Tribune writer Don Marquis showcases the musings of Archy, a cockroach who would enter the newsroom late at night to write in free verse by diving head-first onto the keys of a typewriter. Rapoport’s piece focused on Archy and his sometime pal, Mehitabel the disreputable alley cat. This was a total hoot!

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We were also delighted to hear and sing-along to the famous Hippopotamus Song. But my favourite from this selection was The Armadillo, who was so in love with an armour-plated tank. “Oh, Vive l’amour,” as the song goes…

The combination of text and music worked so well. I think this is what made the evening so much more enjoyable for me. In a way, it felt as if my entire brain was being constantly stimulating. I know, sounds rather peculiar. But the fact I was listening to music I had never heard before, words I had not read before, and having someone perform and read them, made them come to life in a way.

In between musical selections, the texts continued to complement the themes at hand. We heard excerpts from The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson, and The Flight of the Iguana by David Quammen. These selections provided me some excellent quotes and thoughts to ponder about.

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One that stood out for me was “How should humans interact with members of other species?” touching on the notion that as humans, we tend to believe we’re at the top of the ‘food chain’.  In the final reading of the night, “We all long for friends” from The Medusa and the Snail, In this piece, Thomas points at how we tend to have “stereotyped patterns of response towards other creatures”… patterns that are rather “affectionate,” and what a nice thing to notice, don’t you think?

This was my first time hearing renowned mezzo-soprano Norine Burgess and baritone Geoffrey Sirett as they performed a vareity of solos and duets, and I must say I was very impressed. Alone they hold their own, and together, they were lovely. I enjoy baritones, especially, and Sirett did not disappoint. His movements and facial expressions also were a treat for us in the audience. Burgess also impressed us; she had great command of the stage, and can be quite funny too. Reading to us was Ross Manson, the founding Artistic Director of the internationally acclaimed experimental theatre company, Volcano. His voice added a grounding effect throughout the evening as well.

The idea of this concert was for us to relate to these ‘creatures’ in some way, and I think through the music and words, the Talisker Players and friends did just that. I left the performance with a sense of wonder, curiosity, and also with a smile on my face. If you have yet to attend one of these performances, I suggest you mark your calendars for the next one!

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Hyes_musings_iconHeidy is a guest contributor on the BeMused Blog, sharing her love of film, theatre, music, art, and culture in general to encourage more audiences to discover what Toronto has to offer. Check out more of her writing at Hye’s Musings.