VISUALS OUTDO THE MUSIC IN TAFELMUSIK’S ‘CIRCLE OF CREATION’
J.S. Bach: ‘The Circle of Creation’: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Playhouse, January 25, 2019.
Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra has now become firmly identified with Alison Mackay’s multimedia productions that use visuals and a narrator to illuminate the history behind the greatest Baroque compositions. These are wonderfully educational for an audience but do require a pristine balance between the visuals/narration and the music: both must function as fully complementary. In their their first visit with these types of productions in 2016, Tafelmusik’s ‘House of Dreams’ achieved this balance admirably, and was an unqualified success in promoting this genre (review). The current production of ‘J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation’, with new leader Elisa Citterio, did not fare as well. The visuals were fine – and provided an engaging story on their own – but the integrative force of Bach’s music was often lacking. Perhaps this was simply an off night for the instrumentalists, but the musical inspiration and technical execution were below the ensemble’s renowned standard.
The ‘Circle of Creation’ is a well thought out, well documented project to wed the historical particulars of Bach’s later Leipzig years (1723-1750) with the greatness of his music. The main visual focus was on the daily lives and habits of the various types of skilled artisans of the city and, lesser so, the craft guilds to which they belonged. Each contributed to the music of Leipzig in an extended network (circle of creation), including the paper and gut string makers and the student musicians. Then, there were the lawmakers who created the stability for Bach to compose prolifically in his role as Cantor of St. Thomas Church and, indeed, fostered sufficient civic safety for Zimmerman’s Café and other coffeehouses to be musically vibrant in the evening. All this history was conveyed by a sequence of images projected onto a screen behind the musicians with the narration of actor Kevin Bundy, who was poised and effective throughout.
The music consisted of a collection of extracts from Bach’s greatest works: single movements or sections, or sometimes ‘arrangements’ to fit the presentation. The music was in principle well chosen and programmed in such a way that the ear was drawn from one selection to the next with little to no extra effort on the part of the listener. But overall the contribution did seem on the safe and sanitary side, though there were special moments. For example, the extract from Orchestral Suite No. 1 was impressive while the oboes of John Abberger and Marco Cera and the bassoon of Clay Zeller-Townson brought considerable life to the selections from BWV 1066, The ensemble work in the extracts from the Goldberg Variations (BWV 1087) was a further delight. Yet such moments were really relatively few: the instrumentalists failed to spark involvement often or even execute that well.
One event that might explain the executional problems was that some strings broke in the harpsichord right before the performance, and required an emergency repair. Accidents do happen with a reasonable frequency at concerts but this one somehow seemed to sap much of the common purpose from the players. In fact, the orchestra’s tuning seemed to be a persistent problem: intonational difficulties were apparent right at the beginning and failed to dissipate as the evening progressed. Luckily, thanks to Alison Mackay’s visuals, the perceived loss was not as great as it might have been and the audience expressed strong approval for her efforts.
I would certainly like to see this production when the orchestra is in a little better mood and the greatness of Bach’s music can make its full contribution. I don’t think it can be judged without the synergy of the musical contribution. I also look forward to seeing what other creations might be lurking in Mackay’s fertile imagination, awaiting the lightning strike of performance.
© Kate Mackin 2019