TAFELMUSIK’S ‘HOUSE OF DREAMS’
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Jeanne Lamon, Music Director: Works by Handel, Vivaldi, Sweelinck, Purcell, Marais, J. S. Bach, Telemann (extracts), Playhouse, March 4, 2016.
I had not seen Toronto’s Tafelmusik for a very long time, and I was amazed by my own feeling of nostalgia at this appearance. The link to the past came from the late 1970s when I had just accepted my very first teaching position at the University of Toronto. When I arrived, musical discussion was mainly about the appointment of a young Andrew Davis as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony. Suddenly, there was more news: Canada’s first authentic Baroque orchestra was to embark on its debut. This was the beginning of Tafelmusik – in 1979. I recall the very first performances vividly: intriguing and exploratory for sure but still registering a definite sense of learning by doing. Then, the eventual residency at Trinity-St.Paul’s United Church, a venue which had a certain Spartan austerity, amplified by the fact that it seemed to have little, if any, heat in winter. By far the overriding source of nostalgia at this concert was that long-time leader Jeanne Lamon, bassist Allison Mackay, cellist Christina Mahler, and harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger were still roughly in the same positions on stage as I originally saw them -- only it was 35 years later. Sony-Vivarte’s recent issue of a massive 47-disc box covering their entire repertoire testifies to the ensemble’s stunning international accomplishments over this period.
The ‘House of Dreams’ was indeed the inspiration of Alison Mackay, and seemed to be a summing up of everything that had come before: this will apparently be Jeanne Lamon’s last season. I was immediately taken with the sheer ease with which the ensemble played to a virtuoso standard. What we were given was a visually interactive, narrator driven, travelogue through key ‘homes’ in London, Venice, Delft, Paris and Leipzig where the greatest Baroque music was conceived and performed, and where some of the great masterpieces of classical art hung on the walls. Evidently, with all the slides moving by on the large screen, this was not a normal concert in any sense, but it was terrific success, and potentially very educational for the general musical public. With the quasi-poetic, oratory style of Blair Williams, one could visualize some period setting where this type of combination of ‘words and music’ might have taken place.
While there are many attempts to fuse music with the visual these days, this one seemed inspired, and avoided any sense of cliché. It started early on from a bold photo of Handel’s own residence and bed in London and returned us to it at the very end – indeed, our resting place. The ensemble had already taken this project to Asia and Australia, and given around thirty performances before it reached us, so in that sense it wasn’t fully fresh, yet no one had seemingly lost an ounce of enthusiasm. The evident challenge for the musicians is that they are often in motion on the stage and all of the 20-plus pieces of music have to be played from memory.
The refinement, flexibility, and enthusiam of the ensemble were apparent from the opening extracts from Handel’s Concerti Grossi, op. 3 and 6 (London), as was the immense transparency of the inner voices and the easeful virtuosity. The latter were also apparent in the four Vivaldi extracts from concertos (Venice), respectively featuring sterling contributions from lutenist Lucas Harris, oboists John Abberger and Meg Owens, bassoon Dominic Teresi, and cellos Christina Mahler and Allen Whear. The Purcell extracts exhibited the joys of smaller scale, more intimate expression (Delft), while Marin Marais’ Suite for Alcyone (Paris) brought in a more extrovert, dramatic character, as initiated by the decisive tambourine of Aisslinn Nosky, also a violinist with a great sense of fun, rhythmic elan and stage presence.
I was particularly impressed by the ensemble’s sensitivity to the particulars of all these different Baroque styles. It was also nice to see the young violinists play alongside Jeanne Lamon, and this was certainly true when we arrived at the final destination, Leipzig: Lamon and Nosky did a splendid job in bringing out the energy and lyrical reach of Bach’s famous Double Concerto. After a taste of Telemann’s Wassermusik, we returned briefly to Handel, from which everything began and, as it turned out, ended.
As far as the visual/ narrative explorations went, we spent a good deal of time on Handel’s private art collection, which included the likes of Watteau, Ricci, Breugel, Canaletto and Rembrandt. As we moved to Venice, it was Vermeer that got the attention. In Leipzig, the closest art collection to Bach was that of George Heinrich Bose, a family friend who lived next door to Saint Thomas School. Part of the narrative concerned economics: the importance of trade in mirrors, the prized linen parchments in Delft that served Henry Purcell’s written scores, and the equally-prized ‘cobalt’ with its exotic blue colour. A long list of 43 visual credits, combined with a massive amount of detailed historical research, illustrated the amount of effort that went into this project, again affirming the fusion of ‘authentic’ music-making and inspired scholarship that Tafelmusik has always stood for. I think it is unlikely that something like this could be better done than it was here.
© Geoffrey Newman 2016