Laura Brownell  

Unique Ensemble Created by
Toronto Free-lancer

Laura Brownell
July 8, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Mary McGeer, is a freelance musician who has carved out a unique niche in Toronto's rich music scene by creating Talisker Players Chamber Music, an organization that presents chamber works for voice and small instrumental ensembles. The article explores the benefits and challenges of creating and maintaining a small budget performance organization as one part of an urban freelance career. Laura finds that although the rewards are significant in terms of creative expression, community connection, and the satisfaction of providing meaningful work for professional musicians, the price for those at the helm can be high. Countless hours of unpaid work are often required in order to maintain standards and stay within budget.

- Laura Brownell

Group and Venue Group and Venue (Click to enlarge.)

“It’s both. A labor of love and a way to get gigs.” With that forthright response, Mary McGeer puts a splash of cold water on the romantic notion of the creative artist.

The apartment, located in Toronto’s southeast artists’ enclave, is charming. The coffee is excellent.

“Fair Trade. Ethiopian Dark.”

But make no mistake - creative artist she is. The programs she conceives and produces are as much works of art as the works that comprise them. Ms. McGeer is co-founder, Principal Violist, and Artistic Director of Talisker Players Chamber Music, a Toronto-based group that is dedicated to the performance of music for solo voice and small instrumental ensemble.

“The name? “No, no deep hidden meaning , no erudite reference. I just like the Scotch.”

A unique mandate

The concept of Talisker Players Chamber Music was an offshoot of a well-established chamber orchestra that was founded by Ms. McGeer in 1995 and continues to this day in the business of meeting the instrumental music needs of local choirs. Intrigued by the possibilities of combining voice with small ensembles, Ms. McGeer and co-founder Valerie Sylvester began by producing two concerts during the 1999-2000 season. The idea took hold and by May 2000 Talisker Players Chamber Music was a fully incorporated charitable organization with a board and a three-concert subscription season.

A decade later, Talisker Players Chamber Music is a sparkling gem in the array of smaller budget performing arts groups that add richness to the city. Every major population centre has such groups which complement the more traditional offerings of flagship organizations such as symphonic orchestras and opera companies. In addition to adding cultural value they also serve as a source of employment for professional musicians. Small ensemble work is an important piece of almost every urban free-lance career (the alternative to the traditional “big orchestra job”). It is therefore instructive to take a look at what makes a smaller budget ensemble such as Talisker Players Chamber Music a success. But in doing so, it is equally important to not shy away from the reality that most of these smaller ensembles are subsidized in ways that are not always visible – by a day job, by a spouse, or, all too often, by the unpaid labor of the founder.

The path to success: the Total Concert Experience

“The artistic success of Talisker Players Chamber Music flows from the variety of program elements, the natural accessibility of vocal music, and attention to detail in order to achieve a seamless presentation,” says Ms. McGeer. Talisker Players programs are always built around a theme. There is a strong theatrical component aided by a Stage Director, a lighting expert, and an actor who presents theme-related readings during setup changes to add interest, color, and continuity to the total concert experience. The singers can only be described as stellar. Their delight in having an opportunity to perform these works is evident. The instrumentalists are a carefully selected group of players with a “chamber music” orientation, meaning that they are attuned to each other both on and off the stage.

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