Let’s begin by saying I’m not your typical Tafelmusik fan. Yes I love their work with Opera Atelier under David Fallis & at Messiah time with Ivars Taurins (aka Herr Handel), but I am often frustrated by them. Tafelmusik could be seductive Donna Anna, and I’d be Don Ottavio (thinking of last night’s Don Giovanni), the perpetually frustrated fiancé kept at arm’s length. When Lord when?
No I don’t want to marry Tafelmusik.
But it’s confession time. While I admire their baroque performances I am a romantic at heart. Schumann,Berlioz, Wagner & Debussy are my favourite composers. And while it’s true that we have the Toronto Symphony, as far as transitional repertoire (from Mozart to Beethoven & Schubert) or the romantics (Chopin, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Schumann and beyond), I prefer the authentic sounds of an original instrument band such as Tafelmusik playing in the intimate confines of Koerner Hall or Trinity-St-Paul’s, to the modern sound of the TSO swimming in the vastness of Roy Thompson Hall. If I want music by Beethoven (let alone anyone that follows) that usually means biting the bullet and going to the big helmet on King St.
They’re called “Tafelmusik baroque orchestra” for a reason, and that clear sense of identity has served them brilliantly over the years. They’re solvent and even wealthy because they have a clear business model, they know who they are, as do their loyal audience. That they only occasionally venture into romantic territory makes it a colossal tease for me (ergo the reference to poor frustrated Don Ottavio).
I wonder if I’m the only one who feels like they’ve been teased?
Roger Norrington and his London Classical players recorded the Beethoven symphonies over a quarter of a century ago. Since that seminal set (one of many competing sets now available from historically informed bands), Norrington went on to record even more radical music such as Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, symphonies from Schumann & Mendelssohn, early Wagner and even such late romantic composers as Smetana and Brahms. Yet Tafelmusik only gave us the Eroica in performance in May 2012 for the first time (having recorded it a bit before that time). And whenever they’ve ventured past 1780 I’ve seen full houses and rhapsodic applause: like I saw and heard today. Every ticket was sold, every seat was occupied.
Speaking of romance & partnerships, Tafelmusik must be contemplating their future. With Jeanne Lamon their brilliant leader & music-director of many years having stepped down in 2014, I can’t help wondering about their future direction. Who will be their next music director and what direction will Tafelmusik take? Maybe I’m the only one wishing they’d do less baroque and finally claim the 19th century as their own. That’s my context for listening to today’s Beethoven concert led by Japanese-American conductor Kent Nagano, a program featuring the Mass in C and the Fifth symphony. Maybe Nagano is just a guest and this will be the only appearance with Tafelmusik by the conductor who currently leads L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. Whether or not Nagano is a prospect for the job, the management may not believe they need a star at the podium. They’ve done just fine without one.
Whatever the context –that is, whether or not Tafelmusik would be interested in bringing in a name conductor such as Nagano, whether or not they’d be open to programming more romantic music –there’s the matter of the concert. It was fabulous.
We began with Beethoven’s Mass in C including soloists Nathalie Paulin, Laura Pudwell, Sumner Thompson & Lawrence Wiliford, and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. It’s a magnificent work that deserves to be heard more often, its unaffected spirituality leading the composer into collision with the usual forms we’re accustomed to hearing. The words and sentiments are completely intelligible, the soloists’ vocal lines gently mixing with the larger forces without conflict or a lot of drama.
While I credit the composition for the coherence of what we heard, it begins with Nagano, whose decisiveness at the podium was unmistakable. Nagano’s Beethoven matches the expectations of the historically informed performance community: which is to say, faster, and minus the excess vibrato of the previous generation’s performance conventions (although that’s the Tafelmusik sound whoever is leading the band).
This city loves Beethoven, as the TSO have noticed. The weekend concerts were sold out. As we resumed our seats for the second half, every seat occupied, someone joked that it was like getting into our seats on an airplane, with all the attendant adrenaline. We knew we were about to take off.
Because of course Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony followed the intermission in a wonderfully accomplished reading. I’m trying to calibrate my gut feeling, that Nagano’s Beethoven sounds more like the Beethoven that I know, trying to figure out whether that’s even a good thing. Is that because Nagano is more of a conventional /conservative conductor doing the usual things? Previously I’ve heard Tafelmusik led by Bruno Weil. What’s the difference? Weil somehow had Tafelmusik playing Beethoven and still somehow sounding more like a baroque orchestra. Maybe it’s because Weil bends more, is flexible with the players, whereas I felt Nagano was leading an edgy & polished performance. While the sweetness is still there, particularly in that second movement, it moved at a breath-taking clip. The pace in the scherzo dazzles, the strings fabulously accurate when they come to those speedy triplet passages. When we came to that unforgettable last movement, presented fearlessly with great commitment and a flamboyant sense of drama I was wishing Nagano could be a regular feature here, at least as a visitor if not as their new music director.
In the meantime I’ll be pining for them. I wonder if I’m the only one..?