Review: Thirteen Strings, Marion Newman deliver imaginative collaboration

Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman performed the piece Thunderbird with fire and magnetic charisma.

Collaborations between Indigenous cultures and artists from the European classical music tradition are still a rarity in Canada. Sensitivity about appropriation may make some composers nervous, and with good reason. The days when Harry Somers could simply drop a Nisga’a mourning song into his opera Louis Riel without regard for context or permission are hopefully behind us.  But the success of John Estacio’s I Lost My Talk, set to Rita Joe’s powerful poem, which NACO recently took to Eskasoni, Joe’s hometown, shows the sincere reconciliation that can happen through cultural confluence.

On Friday night, Kevin Mallon and Thirteen Strings presented an imaginative program that linked themes and imagery in Shakespeare’s The Tempest to the stormy West Coast and local legends of the Thunderbird. Our guide was mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, an appealing, generous artist who remains close to her Kwagiulth and Sto:lo First Nations roots.

Newman, who charmed as Rosina in Opera Lyra’s Barbiere two seasons ago, has a warm, slightly husky voice, produced with expressive vibrancy and disarming openness. Striking in a scarlet and black coat printed with Pacific Northwest designs, and accompanying herself on a brightly painted drum, she began with a traditional welcome song that set the tone for the evening.

The first half of the concert featured theatrical compositions by Purcell and Matthew Locke, with CBC personality Rob Clipperton reading excerpts from The Tempest. The sinuous, surprising, almost modern music of Locke showed off Mallon and the ensemble at their best, as did the flattering acoustics of St. Brigid’s Centre for the Performing Arts. However, Newman seemed out of sorts in the two Purcell airs, which sounded too low for her register. Her rigid phrasing clashed with the lighter, more flexible lines crafted by Mallon and the strings.

She fared much better in the second half. Her arrangement of her own Kinanu, a lullaby she wrote for her baby sister, was delivered with tender simplicity.  Excerpts from Tobin Stokes’ Stories from Klee Wyck gave her a delicate, poetic, richly evocative score to mine; in Canoe she created remarkable shimmering, far-off effects, like a watery mirage.

Dustin Peters’ Thunderbird is a less subtle composition, but it’s fun and jazzy, incorporating Baroque continuo instruments and punctuated by substantial oboe solos (assertively played by Anna Petersen). Newman sang in the Kwakwala language, embodying the wild, destructive spirit of the Thunderbird with fire and magnetic charisma.  

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.