The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra gave voice -- literally -- to 20th-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop with its latest concert celebrating the words and spirit of the Massachusetts-born writer.
Tuesday's program, led by Anne Manson, featured acclaimed Canadian soprano Suzie LeBlanc performing two song-cycles based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning artist's poetry. The Acadian-born soloist commissioned both works for Nova Scotia's 2011 Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival.
Toronto-based composer Christos Hatzis' Four Songs on Poems by Bishop offered four distinct settings of her text. I Am in Need of Music provided the first taste of LeBlanc's luminous voice that floated over the orchestra with spot-on intonation, with the artist clearly in tune with the poet she grew to love after stumbling across a leaflet about her in a church basement. However, several balance issues with the orchestra, as well as Hatzis' fulsome score, meant that all too often, her words could not be distinguished.
Insomnia fared better, with its sparser accompaniment that allowed greater room for the singer's voice to soar through the long, flowing, pop-infused melodies. The Unbeliever unfolded as a jittery waltz in an age of anxiety, with LeBlanc handling its virtuosic chromatic twists and turns with ease. Anaphora -- added as an afterthought by the composer -- features lushly romantic strings as well as greater dramatic thrust.
The well-paced evening also featured Nova Scotia-born Alasdair MacLean's The Bishop Suite. After its unusual opening instrumental The silken water is weaving and weaving, in which the composer introduced his evocative sound world, LeBlanc launched into the first of its three love songs: Dear, my compass, Close, close all night, which was sung with great sensitivity and also featured Caitlin Broms-Jacobs' sinewy oboe solo, and Breakfast Song, which communicated ardent love amid "coffee-flavoured mouths."
Polish composer Wojciech Kilar's Orawa (1986) proved the sleeper hit of the night. Fuelled by repetitive motives and rhythmic ostinati, this string-orchestra work bristled with the raw energy of a village folk dance. Manson kept a steady baton on the orchestra's (musical) pulse, as the one-movement piece gradually accelerated before finally erupting with the players' "Hey!"
Josef Suk's Serenade for Strings in E-Flat Major, Op. 6 rounded out the program. Of the four movements, the soulful Adagio, including an expressive solo by principal cellist Desiree Abbey, spoke most plaintively, evoking wistful times gone by while still looking to better days ahead.