I’ve always been interested in Robert Turner’s music, partly because of my ongoing search for Manitoba composers to feature in my solo and choral projects, partly because of his interest in folk music(also an interest of mine), partly because of Sara Turner’s gentle urgings to consider his works for performance. Robert was a real craftsman with a big heart, and a sense of humour. At least, that is how his music comes across to me. Back in the 90′s when Vic Pankratz and I co-directed the Winnipeg Singers, we had frequent occasion to program his Folk-song settings for choir. We used these songs on our concerts, on our touring performances, and on our “Prairie Voices” CD. “Carrion Crow” and “Cold-water song” were always two particular favourites, their full sonorities and playful changes of texture a delight to both the performers and the audience. Interestingly, Robert’s student John Greer, a formidable folk-song setter himself, set “Carrion Crow” in a delightful duet for mezzo and baritone, part of a four-duet set which Rose Vanderhooft and I have performed many times.
Folk-songs have been part of my recital projects for years, and Robert’s 10 Folk-songs setting are a treasure-trove. Some are set for high voice, some for medium voice, but they all find a rich, varied musical language that gets at the dramatic heart of the story. The piano parts are almost orchestral in scope, giving plenty of support for the emotional twists and turns of each folk-story. Well-set, they are easy to communicate to the audience. I have used them many times, but one of my all-time favourites is his cheeky setting of “Madam, Madam, you came courting”.
Sara Turner drew my attention to Robert’s opera “The Brideship”, a CBC radio project from the 60′s, in connection with Contemporary Opera Lab, a three-week training course in New Opera I run each summer at the Faculty of Music. With a cast of student singers drawn from all across Canada, and conducted by Dr. Karl Paulnack(Boston Conservatory), we did the first-ever staging of the Brideship. We were only able to stage ACT 2, but found it a most satisfying piece. The libretto by George Woodcock, based on a real story, is very strong, and Robert really catches the essence of the various characters as the drama unfolds. This piece would be very much worth doing in its entirety, with the right cast and an orchestra.
I can’t speak to the vocal writing of Robert’s more serial works, not having done any of these pieces. Even in is more accessible settings, however, he loved dense textures. Still he always made things vocally friendly for the singer and chose texts that allow the singer ample opportunity to connect with the audience. One can’t ask for more.