A Woman’s Voice

A Woman's VoiceA Woman’s Voice is a record with 84 minutes of music for female voices and piano by Alice Ping Yee Ho.  It’s a mixture of songs and excerpts from operas and a plkay.  All but one track feature Toronto based artists who include no less than three Norcop prize winners.  Overall, I found the songs more fun to listen to than the opera excerpts though they were interesting in their own way too and I’m seriously intrigued by a couple of them that I haven’t seen but now want to.

The first set on the album is Four Seasons Ballade which sets four poems by Li Bai in Chinese.  This is complex, challenging and very rewarding music.  The vocal line, sung by soprano Katy Clarke, is sustained, high and difficult with an intricate piano accompaniment (Jialiang Zhu – who provides accompaniment on all but one track).  It’s a great start.

Three Songs from the Tang Dynasty sets classical Chinese texts in English translation.  The singer here is soprano Maeve Palmer.  Again this is difficult but rewarding music in a style that is very much the composer’s own.  I was particularly struck by “Flood”   It has a really dense piano accompaniment to start with and a very high vocal line.  Then it goes a cappella and very slow before the piano comes back for a much more lyrical conclusion.  Really these first two sets are great examples of what contemporary art song is all about and the performances are terrific.

Next come some excerpts from the operas The Lesson of Da Ji and Chinatown.  I’m quite familiar with the first piece having been at the premiere and having reviewed the recoding for Opera Canada magazine.  The excerpts; “Da Ji’s Aria” and the “Moon Aria”, sound quite different here.  Vania Chan has a very different voice from Marion Newman and here, of course it’s piano not an ensemble of Chinese and Western instruments and there’s no Peking Opera singer in the duet.  Still it is some of the best music from the opera and it’s well done.  I’d like to think it would encourage people to get their hands on the full recording.  There are also a couple of excerpts from Chinatown which I haven’t seen.  The first, “Sisters Duet” is sung by Vania Chan and Maeve Palmer and also features Andrew Ascenzo on cello.  This definitely sounded like a chunk of opera out of context.  “Anna’s Aria”, sung by Katy Clarke, worked better for me.  It’s dramatic enough to stand alone.

The Madness of Queen Charlotte (text by Phoebe Tsang) deals with the traumatic experiences of Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz, wife of George III.  I guess it inevitably provokes comparison with Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad KingIt’s not as crazy as Max but it’s still a really dark text set with a rather strident vocal line and a  piano part that is sometimes strangely playful and at other times dark and dissonant.  It’s good stuff and another fine performance from Vania Chan.

“Spring”, taken from the play THE END by Peter Hinton suffered a bit from me not knowing the context but it’s pleasantly lyrical.  Vania Chan again.  “Cock” (text by Carole Glasser Langille) is interesting.  It’s sung playfully with considerable agility by Katy Clark with an accompaniment that sounds like it uses a fair bit of extended technique.  “Détester, Aimer” (text by Thomass Muir) consists of three or four word lines in French.  It progresses from “Déteste, souffre, regrette” to “Vit, rigole, aime” and the mood goes with it from declamatory, loud and dissonant to something much lighter and more lyrical.  Vania Chan again.

“Weeping Iris” is a lullabye from the opera Labyrinth of Tears. It’s the one piece recorded in Montreal with soprano Ariadne Lih and pianist Tong Wang (who also wrote the text).  It’s a weird piece sung by a schoolgirl who is “inside” the mind of a schoolfriend in a coma.  I definitely want to see this opera!  The Montreal contingent are as good as their Toronto counterparts and so is the recording.  I didn’t even notice any difference in the acoustic.

“Café Chit Chat” (text Anna Camara) and “Black” (text Camille Glasser Langille) are both playful duets dealing rather indirectly with lesbian encounters.  Katy Clarke and Maeve Palmer converse over coffee in the first while Katy and mezzo Alex Hetherington get a bit steamier in the second.

The final piece on the album is a long excerpt from the opera The Imp of the Perverse (text by Michael O’Brien).  “Sun Duet” starts very light and bright and cheerful describing a sunny morning while “Parlour Song” starts as one might expect from a well bred young lady at a luncheon party before going seriously off the rails into something very dark and very weird.  I really want to see this opera!  Singing duties are shared by Vania Chan, Maeve Palmer and Alex Hetherington.

All the singing on this disk is really good as one would expect from some of Toronto’s finest young(ish) singers.  The piano parts place many and varied demands on the performer and they are managed most skilfully by Jialiang Zhu.

The recording was made in Walter Hall at UoT in August of 2021 and it is excellent with great clarity and realistic balance.  It’s a digital only release in MP3 and standard and hi-res (99kHz/24bit) FLAC formats.  I listened to he higher resolution version. There’s also a well done bilingual digital booklet with texts, bios and composer’s notes.

There’s almost an hour and a half of intriguing, well performed music in this release and I highly recommend it.

Catalogue number: Leaf Music LM254

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