Dr. Bartolo’s Umbrella launching May 24th

Dr.-Bartolos-Umbrella-Cover-rev2Introducing Dr Bartolo’s Umbrella: Christopher Cameron’s funny, irreverent, touching memoir of his life as a Canadian opera and concert singer in the 1970s and 80s.

His often hilarious stories about performing offer insight into their historical context, plus such arcane facts as why an opera singer’s voice can be heard above a whole orchestra while other people can barely be heard across the dining room table. The genial approachable tone of the book makes it accessible to people of diverse ages and interests.

 

Please join us for an event celebrating the publication at….

The Arts and Letters Club
14 Elm Street, Toronto
Wednesday May 24, 2017
6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Reading at 7:15
Book signing at 7:45
Published by Seraphim Editions
For further information or to purchase click here.

Posted in Opera, Press Releases and Announcements | Leave a comment

The real prize, and never mind appropriation

While I knew what was coming, I was still stunned.

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Broadcaster Jesse Wente

When Matt Galloway asked Jesse Wente to address the question of cultural appropriation raised a few days ago by Hal Niedzviecki’s Write Magazine editorial, I knew what was coming. I follow Wente on Twitter, enjoy his regular spots on Metro Morning, and was in no doubt as to which side he would take.

But that’s just it.  Listen to Wente, and discover what this is all about. The reason you need to listen to this or to watch this is to pick up the key element, namely his emotion.

The first time through this, I was in my car.  It was magic to hear this without the visuals, because I was blind-sided by Wente’s passion, overwhelming and unmistakeable.  I got to work, went looking for this and saw that a friend had already shared it to Facebook: and so I did likewise.

Later in the day I saw the piece shared as a video (because Metro Morning is both a radio program but also captured on camera). That’s what I am sharing here.

When I saw this I had a bit of an epiphany. Pardon me for seeming presumptuous but I’ve seen lots of people discussing the question of appropriation over the past few weeks.  I will personalize this, even as I try to speak to the gap between Niedzviecki and Wente, and insert myself in there, unasked. I think the key is found in this paragraph from Wente, who said:

None of us that I’ve seen want to limit free speech. I wish there were so many more stories written about Indigenous people. But those stories come with responsibility. Indigenous people know this all too well, we are beholden to our communities. When we say these things, we know exactly who will hold us responsible. Who is that for non-Indigenous writers, when they don’t have these connections to the community? Do they truly understand the reason that these stories are sacred?

I’ve been thinking long and hard about this for weeks, as I have immersed myself on a few occasions in powerful passionate discourses, such as They Can’t Kill Us All¸ about Black Lives Matter, or the Canadian Opera Company’s diligent attempt to redeem Louis Riel, an opera that appropriated an Indigenous composition.

There are limits to what a person from outside a culture can truly understand.  I know my limits, no matter how many times I try to understand, try to listen, try to watch, I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone especially because I don’t see things the same way.

I think the key is that when we use the word “culture” we’re not always talking about the same thing.  And when an Eastern European comes to Canada we usually use the melting pot approach to culture, learning English and assimilating ourselves as soon as possible into the dominant milieu.  I don’t mean this to be a shot at Niedzviecki. Quite the opposite.

Culture for a Hungarian like me? I love Franz Liszt & George Ligeti and Zoltan Kodaly, and I am dimly aware of folk music.  I love to eat schnitzels –notice that I immediately gave my own cultural artifact an assimilated name?  SCHNITZEL is a German word because of course the Austrians loved their meat too, and as they were the dominant race & language, they got the naming rights.  Hells bells, Franz Liszt is actually Liszt Ferenc, but the world knows him by his German alias “Franz”.  So I can’t really speak for Niedzviecki but Hungarians have this remarkable skill at assimilation.  As such, when we try what Niedzviecki proposed – to imagine other peoples and cultures – it’s what Hungarians do obscenely well, so well in fact that we lose ourselves in the process.

(PLEASE NOTE I don’t know what culture Niedzviecki comes from, although it sounds like another country in Eastern Europe, like Hungary).

So this isn’t me defending Niedzviecki. This is me attempting to translate.  When I think of my childhood in Toronto, it was with a strong awareness of the barrenness of Canadian culture in the 1960s.  We had the Met broadcasts on the radio, the records on the record player. And white bread and not much more.  In suburbia there was no real ethnicity at this time.  From what I’ve read, the arrival of Hungarians in their big exodus in 1956-7 after the uprising, brought a great deal of culture to Toronto, and is one of the first steps towards the multi-cultural reality we know today.  Awhile ago I wrote about the Coffee Mill, a restaurant known to have been the centre of Toronto culture, literally the place where TIFF was allegedly conceived born, over coffee & cake.

One can’t really compare this to what Wente’s talking about.  Meaning no disrespect to any Hungarians, we didn’t come here and then associate with fellow Magyars.  And maybe I should be left out of the conversation even more, given that my mom & dad left Hungary via Sweden in 1948 or so, long before the big exodus.

Now let’s go back to Wente’s key passage, and recall that for white Eastern Europeans like my family, cultural assimilation was effortless.  He says

When we say these things, we know exactly who will hold us responsible. Who is that for non-Indigenous writers, when they don’t have these connections to the community? Do they truly understand the reason that these stories are sacred?  

I think the obvious answer to that big question has to be no, especially when you hear the passion in Wente’s voice as he concludes (“This is our strength, this is me being in touch with my ancestors and feeling them sitting beside me.”). I almost lost it myself when he said that, wishing I had a comparable connection.

Setting aside our relationship to the Indigenous community (and our recognition that their stories are sacred) it needs to be asked: what sort of community do we come from and what sort –if any– do we share amongst ourselves?  Some of us are refugees (certainly within my family), with roots on the other side of the ocean.  Some have cut their ties, and have re-invented themselves here over a period of decades.  It’s admirable and beautiful: but totally alien to what Wente’s speaking of.  While we give lip service to the great metaphor of Canada – that  up here, we’re a respectful mosaic rather than an oblivious melting-pot like the USA— we need to take this to the next level.  We can’t simply say live and let live, while our own behaviour is a passive-aggressive expression of disrespect.  The notion of appropriation that Niedzviecki would honour is one consistent with the ethos of the melting pot, where everyone is free to imagine something else and to dream big. This is how Canada was explored in the 19th century and subdivisions developed in the 20th.  This is how many composers and artists understood culture: as though you take and blend and mix, and make it yours without asking.

But I think Canada and the world needs something better than that.  Either all cultures vanish into a true melting pot (which experience has shown isn’t about to happen), or we find the grace and the humility to listen to one another, and to discover one another, distinct and different.

Conversations like this one are valuable. I hope Wente doesn’t lose hope. I heard such despair in his voice this morning, it was truly heart-breaking.  But I do understand that part.  I wish more people would hear him: his emotions, his passion. THAT would be the genuine imaginative act reminiscent of the one Niedzviecki called for when he spoke of an appropriation prize.  If only we saw that kind of effort.

To seek, to understand.  To empathize.  That would be the reward and the real prize.

Posted in Personal ruminations, Politics | Leave a comment

Time stands still in Carsen’s middle ground

Every now and then the stars align for something extraordinary.  Yesterday’s final high-definition broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera brought us something unique, with the help of Robert Carsen’s production of Der Rosenkavalier.

Carsen has found a niche for himself in a middle ground that doesn’t lose sight of the original text, mollifying the hard-core old guard who are upset when a beloved old production is retired.  Such was the case with Carsen’s Falstaff, and such is again the case with Rosenkavalier (thinking of the productions replaced at the Metropolitan Opera).  Yes he updates productions, but he is fastidious in his attention to textual detail.  As director’s theatre goes, you could call it Regie lite, a very gentle pathway to the new that works through the text.

For Richard Strauss’s fin de siècle comedy this meant updating the story to the time of its premiere (1911), a trope we’ve seen a great deal of late, thinking for example of the Glyndebourne Meistersinger or assorted Parsifal productions that seem to be set inside Wagner’s head.  Carsen makes the subtexts of the opera manifest in his updating.  Baron von Faninal is indeed an armaments manufacturer, although the 2nd Act opens with more of this than usual.  Nobody in 1911 expected the war that began so soon thereafter, adding to the poignancy of the moment, as though Carsen has this story hanging off the edge of a cliff.

Rosenkavalier is especially an opera about time and aging.  Usually we’re watching the 30-something Marschallin graciously letting go of her young teenaged lover Octavian.  And because this is opera, we’re watching someone older in each role.   There is a curious sort of magic at work in the use of a trouser role to signify the youthful male, which mysteriously shuts down or confounds our usual disbelief.  We get to a kind of perfect ideal place in our minds, watching Octavian with the Marschallin, that surely couldn’t happen if we were watching an actual teenage boy with an actual woman in her 30s.

What made this season finale so special were a pair of farewells, from Renée Fleming and Elīna Garanča in the roles of these two.  And so when we saw Fleming looking about at the latter part of the first act, she might have been taking in her own fate as an older singer as much as she was heard in character to muse about the passage of time.  And again, even more poignantly at the end of the opera when she re-appears as though to ensure the succession, passing the amatory torch to a younger lover, she could also be signalling her surrender of the role itself.  Her very gentle “ja ja” with which she steps aside was fraught with additional meanings in a theatre full of seniors (it felt weird at 60-plus years old, to be wondering if I was the youngest person present).   Garanča seems fully capable of playing this part a whole lot more, given her wonderfully male body language, but she too has announced that this is her last time in the part.

Yes there were lots of other wonderful performances, especially the Ochs of Günther Groissböck, the Sophie of Erin Morley, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra sounding especially fine under conductor Sebastian Weigle.   One of the great joys of the production was watching the dense stage action captured by the high-definition cameras.

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COC Music Director Johannes Debus and COC General Director Alexander Neef. (Photo: bohuang.ca)

I can’t help wishing that Alexander Neef might again import a Robert Carsen production to the Canadian Opera Company stage.  He has given us several delightful tastes of Carsen already, via Orfeo ed Euridice, Iphigenie en Tauride, Dialogues des Carmelites and Falstaff.   Perhaps Rosenkavalier can be the next one.  It would make a great vehicle for Adrianne Pieczonka, who has sung this production abroad,  and for the COC orchestra led by Johannes Debus.

One can dream.

Posted in Opera, Personal ruminations, Reviews | 2 Comments

Cavalli’s Elena from Toronto Consort

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Toronto Consort Artistic Director & conductor David Fallis

Francesco Cavalli’s Elena received its Canadian premiere tonight at the Jeanne Lamon Hall in a partially staged performance that was still more than enough to charm the audience in attendance. As my companion observed it was a nerdy bunch, ready to laugh at every little gag, no matter how obscure, the loyal followers of The Toronto Consort and their Artistic Director David Fallis, whose sensibility and musicianship seem to be such a key component of the local music scene.

He was surrounded by an all-star cast of baroque specialists, beginning with Consort members Michele DeBoer as Elena and Laura Pudwell as Ippolita, and guests Kevin Skelton as Menelao, Vicki St Pierre as Peritoo and Bud Roach as Iro.  There were no weak spots in the cast, that included some wonderful singing.  St Pierre and Pudwell showed off their darker colours to great effect, while DeBoer’s higher voice had what seemed to be the biggest part by far.

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Michele DeBoer

Elena is a comic opera, one of the first to survive. The story isn’t quite what we’re accustomed to, as we’re not confronted with the horrors of the Trojan War but instead watching Menelaus dressing up as a woman to attempt to seduce Elena (aka Helen) by posing as a wrestling coach. However much scenery or illusion one puts into a staging of this opera, and Toronto Consort used very little set or costuming beyond a hint of Wonder Woman for Menelaus’s amazon outfit plus a golden fleece brought in by Castor & Pollux, the plot is pretty silly, as a series of figures from the heroic age of Ancient Greece are busy trying to seduce one another.

Cavalli deserves to be better known. As with his other operas, his style is a very fluid one, allowing swift progress in the plot. While there are some airs, we’re not yet at a point in opera’s development where the music stops the action for very long, although we did enjoy lovely displays of virtuosity from the singers. The dramaturgy is recognizably baroque with a desire to embellish and to show off skill in the singing & the playing. But because the scale of the work is small – fewer than 10 musicians—the singers were never in danger of being drowned out. I can only speculate on how close we came on this occasion to what would have been heard back in the 17th century, especially given that the original employed castrati, whereas this version juggled the vocal parts a bit.

I was most intrigued by Bud Roach’s character Iro, who is identified as a court buffoon, seeming to echo the tradition of servants such as Harlequin from the Commedia dell’Arte, which was known to have been an influence upon Cavalli. He made his entrances through the theatre, not unlike a Shakespearean clown, in his ability to shatter any possible fourth wall. Roach was diametrically opposite from the rest of the cast in his approach, both in his willingness to look and sound more like a comedian than an opera singer, but also in carrying his own guitar that he played. I wish someone would undertake a fully staged production someday. Not only does Cavalli’s music & story-telling deserve this, but so do we, because these operas are so good.

Elena will receive encore performances Saturday May 13th at 8 pm & Sunday May 14th at 3:30 pm in the Jeanne Lamon Hall, on Bloor St West. More than a mere historical curiosity, this is a work full of beautiful music that’s worth hearing.

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews | Leave a comment

Precarity in the alternative space of Other Jesus

Evan Webber’s new play Other Jesus, that has been getting presented nightly at St Matthew’s United Church on St Clair, opens a discursive space that I’ve been contemplating. I’m not entirely sure I’m objective about this, given that I’m projecting meanings onto the play that may not be there. What, I’ve wondered, are the conditions that create a religion and a faith community? And what is the relationship between the pure experience of revelation –the visions of a prophet—and the subsequent stories, the rituals, and the music?

The essence of any proposition is a hypothetical, the creation of a world where we explore the “what if” that goes with certain assumptions. Webber takes us somewhere that’s almost impossible to imagine, a crucible where a religion might be born, through a kind of speculative fiction that one could find in science fiction: except the circumstances have more to do with religion and faith than starships or aliens.

I don’t mean to disparage, when I say that Webber’s work reminds me of some conceptual art I’ve seen & heard of, where the idea is sometimes better in the mind than in its execution. And perhaps the shortcomings are a necessary part of the ideal version that can only exist in our heads. This may be partly because the idea is still unfinished or in need of further revision. I say this because I think there’s more to this than Webber realized, that might yet be brought forth in the next iteration of Other Jesus: if Webber gets the opportunity to revise and then remount the work.

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Evan Webber (photo: Sarah Bodri)

And yet a big part of my experience in this production from Public Recordings, directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell, is its roughness, the miserably incomplete body presented to us: not unlike the experience of faith itself. We’re reaching for shreds and remnants, intimations rather than a concrete and provable fact. Think of Nirvana or Pearl Jam, the way there was a purity to their music precisely because they were rough and unpurified. I think this was the essence of the grunge sound, which was a kind of neo-classical return to first principles, the angry shapeless id that used to rule rock music back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. I apologize to anyone who thinks of the voices of Eddy Vedder or Kurt Cobain as pretty or refined. What I admire in them is precisely that they did not make a pretty sound, that they were raw and unpasteurized, very direct and emotionally authentic. This is what we get with Other Jesus. The music at the beginning and end and a few times in the middle, is unsophisticated and noisy, a discourse of questions rather than answers, seeking rather than finding. The best things in the play were the unexpected and the ironic, rather than the moments conforming to the genre, such as it was. While we were watching a kind of anti-religious pageant, this was comprised of moments that were both the recognizable and unrecognizable. We were closest to the pure raw essence when we didn’t know what was coming next, when we were forced to lean forward in bafflement.

The word precarity comes to mind, a word usually associated with a precarious existence on the fringes of our economy. It occurs to me that this is the world that Jesus inhabited, among thieves and whores and the sick and the lame, rather than the wealthy property owners and the Pharisees. But the discursive realm too is precarious, balanced on a kind of edge where we don’t know what to expect. Surely this is where it begins, where the visions of the prophets occur, out of hunger or pain, seeking water or healing: and recalling that the word “save” is about healing, or “salving”.

That was the precarious place made–discursively and physically— by Webber and Public Recordings. That we were in a church as we explored a kind of hypothetical gospel of a hypothetical Jesus, only underlined the exploration all the more. As someone observed in the program, St Matthew’s is a church community that is itself being re-negotiated, rethought, and perhaps is also somewhat precarious in its exploration of a new sort of covenant & relationship to its community. I felt too that the neighbourhood—whether you call it “Wychwood” or “Hillcrest”—is being reinvented around us, a series of new chi-chi places to eat and shop. Cox-O’Connell made the witty observation that the regular population going to church is about the same size as those regularly going to plays. Too true! And in both cases there’s an alarming fear that each group is far too grey, although in this case – the edgier theatre—one can rejoice in the youth one sees filling the space.
It was sold out tonight and likely for the rest of the run.

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I couldn’t help noticing, too, that for me, the most exciting parts of the performance, like the best parts of any church service, are the music. No sermon ever persuades me nearly so much. Similarly, much as I enjoyed Webber’s ideas, the abstract music and Thom Gill’s song seemed to be the most eloquent moments. But we’d never have been opened to those without the speculative world laid out in Webber’s prose.

Need I add, that this all feels very timely when we’re living in a world that seems on the verge of upheaval, that there’s an existential precarity I wish I could forget, that I escaped for a few moments tonight, until I walked back out the door. As Cox-O-Connell says in his director’s note, “the act of a group of friends putting on a play continues to be a search to believe in something and to belong to something.” The raw fragility of it all can’t be missed.

Is this all there is? Maybe.

Posted in Reviews, Spirituality & Religion, Theatre & musicals | Leave a comment

Vittoria! COC’s fell-good Tosca

They didn’t change the ending but that’s the best I’ve felt coming out of a Tosca performance in a very long time. You wouldn’t normally think of an opera where all three of the principals die as a feel-good opera.

(haha I almost typed “fell-good” which is apt for
an entirely different reason…!
But I won’t be a spoiler)

Tosca is one of the operas I have seen so many times, played, coached, sung parts, that I literally know every note at least of the piano vocal score, and I will always proclaim it to be one of the best operas ever written. It’s indestructible.  It still works whether the hero and heroine are handsome or chubby, young or old, the villainous Scarpia blatantly scary or subtly gnarled. And wonderful as my experience was today I’m happily looking forward to hearing & seeing it again from a different part of the theatre.

Today was the first turn for the #2 cast in the Canadian Opera Company’s current production of Tosca, singing the first of their five of the 12 performances in the run, and who can likely be forgiven for exemplifying that old motto of Avis Rent-a-Car. The slogan for the #2 car rental company was “we try harder” and so it seemed at the Four Seasons Centre today, as they wanted us to notice them too.

Keri Alkema as Tosca gradually won me over more and more. While I enjoyed her work in the first two acts, including the big aria, it was the last act that left me all verklempt and teary-eyed at the end. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Tosca who persuaded me that she is a different person at the end, at least until now. She seems shaken at what she’s done –the pious innocent who has killed Scarpia—and now is a very dark and troubled woman in that last scene. The other Toscas I’ve seen usually play optimism and hope, setting you up for the disappointment of the fake execution and pursuit. For whatever reason, Alkema made me believe she truly did feel sorry, after the lines in Act II “È morto!
Or gli perdono!” (“he’s dead. Now I forgive him”). In some productions these lines make me giggle because they are so difficult to do without seeming ridiculous, absurd.

But that’s the thing. Alkema doesn’t do so much of the grinning one sees in the last act of a Tosca. For whatever reason –partly due to her chemistry with her Cavaradossi, Kamen Chanev—she is not there to cheer up her despairing painter. Once he sees her, he is the smiling and adoring one, while she seems ashamed, profoundly upset with herself. When Chanev sang “oh dolci mani” it was the first time I really got this aria, really understood what the opera is doing at this moment, possibly because at this moment Cavaradossi is trying to console her, to remind her who she is (a good person?) in the face of her horror at what she’s done. Who thought that after so many productions, they’d show me something new?

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Kamen Chanev as Cavaradossi and Keri Alkema as Tosca in the last act of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper

This was the most moving “Trionfal” I’ve ever seen. Most moving? Perhaps it’s the first time I have ever seen this moment really work! If you know the opera, you know that Act III opens with an epic utterance from the horn section, a magnificent uplifting tune capturing the spirit of hope that might come to fruition if the plot turns out the way Floria Tosca hopes it shall. This mysterious melody comes back, in the bold declaration by Tosca & Cavaradossi just before the mock execution (that is actually a real one due to double-cross), the boldest singing as they stare down-stage at us, defying us to doubt their resolve, daring us to tell them that they will not succeed. It works as a tragedy if the characters have been properly developed, more than two-dimensional cartoon cut-outs. And yes Chanev and Alkema sing this passage beautifully. We dare to hope for a different outcome, believing it might end differently this time.

I know. It’s not rational.

But wait, there’s quite a bit more to come and hahahah I won’t tell you too much because I don’t want to steal the tears out of your eyes, should you perchance come see it. I will say that Alkema is the most convincing Tosca I’ve ever seen in her moment of heart-break, when she goes from “let’s go Mario” (to run away for the happy ending) to “let’s go Mario” (body language and face telling us what she takes in, that he’s not okay, …will never be okay). And the rest? Yes there’s more that’s very good. I couldn’t make a sound for quite awhile, although I did manage to recover in time to offer my applause.

I may have been messed up in advance, seeing the result of the French election on social media between the first and second acts, primed for Cavaradossi’s adolescent outburst of “Vittoria”, believing for a moment that there is an answer to tyranny and fascism. Director Paul Curran gives us a Tosca full of well-thought moments, details & objects used mindfully. We were staked to a great start with the revolutionary gravitas of Musa Ngqungwana as Angelotti followed by the delightful Donato Di Stefano (so brilliant in the Cenerentola a few years ago), the latter, one of a vanishing breed of singer with some understanding of the buffo tradition, making the Sacristan the focus whenever he was onstage.

Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson gave us a beautiful performance, and please let me explain. Yes the COC orchestra and chorus played what sounded like a flawless fluff-free performance, possibly because of the give and take at the podium.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard such stunning cello playing (Paul Widner?) to begin Act III.
[NB, I was subsequently told in a comment shown below that the cellist in question was Alastair Eng]
And I’ve heard performances that were more inexorable in Act II – when we might want the conductor to be as much of a fascist as Scarpia, driving the orchestra relentlessly—but if the suspense is accomplished in a wild ride that leaves the singers behind? Then I’d rather not do it that way. Conducting Puccini is hard. I recall someone long ago telling me when I was very young that this is the hardest music to conduct: if you’re doing it right. There must be give and take, otherwise the singers get sacrificed on the altar of brisk tempi. There are arias in this opera that require mindful leadership. And so Wilson didn’t disingenuously press on at the end of “Recondita armonia” but instead stopped decisively for the applause, that conductors don’t always allow us. A good conductor can be like a safety net or like a cattle prod, either making the singers more comfortable about the risks they are taking, or terrorizing them. And I feel I should add that in a production where there seemed to be no concessions –no attempts to cast someone based on their nationality, as Canadians or as ensemble studio members –it must be observed that Keri-Lynn Wilson is there on merit, not because she’s Canadian or a woman.  What I saw and felt and what erupted out of my eyes was Wilson’s doing, in a production that was very musical, stunningly beautiful from beginning to end.

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Keri-Lynn WIlson (photo: Daria Stravs Tisu)

Craig Colclough was a strong-voiced Scarpia, at times underplaying the usual loud readings for something subtler, for example as in the moment when he commands Spoletta to go get Angelotti, (catching Tosca in a huge lie).

Meanwhile, there are two casts singing this opera of pure gold until the closing performance on May 20th. I know I’ll see it at least one more time. You should consider it.

Posted in Personal ruminations | 4 Comments

Tafelmusik: now wait for next year

Tafelmusik are finishing their 2016-17 season with a series of concerts this weekend at Koerner Hall: that portend great things for next year. And maybe that’s what they wanted to do, leaving us all hot and bothered in anticipation of the season to come after the summer’s over.

Clever!

Tonight’s program was a clever reconciliation between two of Tafelmusik’s myriad personalities. Consider that sometimes:

  • They play in the pit for Opera Atelier
  • They work with Tafelmusik Baroque chorus, especially when it’s time to do the Messiah,
  • They started out with a heavy emphasis on the baroque
  • But they also play classical (tonight we heard Haydn & Mozart) and even romantic (next year we’ll be hearing more Beethoven, but have ventured deeper into the 19th century than that: as we shall see).

The baton has been passed, in this curious triumvirate who lead this orchestra, even though the conducting is mostly done without a baton:

  • David Fallis leads when they play opera as they did just a couple of weeks ago at the Elgin Theatre (and he’s the only one with a baton), and again when they’re in Versailles on the Opera Company’s imminent tour
  • The choral repertoire is under the capable leadership of Ivars Taurins
  • Jeanne Lamon retired, and now we’ve had opportunities to see her successor, Elisa Citterio leading while also playing the violin

The two aspects of Tafelmusik heard tonight were the classical symphony side, in a Haydn Symphony led by Citterio followed by Mozart’s incomplete choral masterwork, his Mass in C Minor, led by Taurins.

Yes it sounds great. But I can’t help seeing it all as a brilliant exercise in kaizen, continuous improvement, pushing the orchestra to ever higher levels of achievement and enlightenment. Under Taurins they’re led by a choral conductor whose gestures seem to equalize all parts of the score, treating each entry –whether instrumental or vocal—with the same sense of importance & drama, with the same loving care. Under Citterio they’re led by one of their players, listening and following one another as though a big loud symphony were chamber music. In each situation one watches and listens differently.

They’re learning and growing every time they play.

Need I add, that tonight’s concert was stunningly beautiful from beginning to end, a masterful piece of programming executed with care & love.

We began with Citterio leading Haydn’s Symphony #98. The passions in this work seem to erupt, the orchestra powerful and brassy at times. The performance was very tight, but still loosy—goosey as far as any sense of tension or discomfort. Hm, that doesn’t sound very technical does it? but this orchestra seems very happy working with Citterio, very eager to respond. And Haydn fits this ensemble rather well, whether in the soft & lyrical moments early on, or in the occasional sturm und drang with which we’re presented. As the season approaches its end –and they prepare to fly off to Europe—this is a very self-assured band who know who they are. I don’t think it’s my imagination that they love playing with Citterio, and the feeling seems to be mutual.

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Soprano Julia Doyle (Raphaelle Photography)

After the interval it was Taurins turn along with the Tafelmusik baroque choir and soloists Julia Doyle, Joanne Lunn, Asitha Tennekoon and Joel Allison, in the Mozart. The orchestra sounded truly heavenly throughout, the chorus matching them. In the dark “qui tollis peccata mundi” it was a delight to watch Taurins bringing out inner voices, signalling both the performers and the audience to help us navigate the contrapuntal complexities.

Doyle was especially fine in her solos in the Kyrie and the “Et incarnatus est”, her pitch pristine, her phrasing angelic.  But much as I love Tennekoon’s light fluid voice, I’m not sure whether he’s over-parted in this fach, or that the sopranos were simply too loud, and forgot themselves in competing with one another, both in the trio & the quartet. I giggled to myself imagining if one of these had been Constanze Mozart (given that the composer’s wife sang one of those soprano parts). But in a sacred piece such as this I would have expected more attention to balance, more restraint. It’s not opera. Hm or maybe it could have been fixed had the singers been given the acoustical “sweet spot” at the front of the stage, rather than relegated to a place with the chorus. But I’m being a perfectionist, reflecting on a concert that flirted with perfection.

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Music Director Designate Elisa Citterio (photo: Monica Cordiviola)

The concert was unforgettable in so many ways. I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking “see you in September”, wanting to hear more, and eager to hear Tafelmusik again with Citterio. Their chemistry seems to be very good. If you can’t wait until the autumn this wonderful program is repeated Saturday night at 8 pm & Sunday afternoon at 3:30.

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