This was the most fun I’ve had at a concert since the epic minimalist concert (oxymoron?) in August 1st 2013. Then as now I believe we were seeing Toronto Summer Music Artistic Director Douglas McNabney pushing the envelope of what’s possible in a concert. On that occasion it was a curious mix of elements, teasing us with possibilities.
But this time I believe we were engaging in genuine research, Daniel Taylor’s Theatre of Early Music (TEM) challenging us to see and hear in a new way. I put this performance alongside my experiences with PLS, the U of Toronto’s lab for exploring early drama, and so many historically informed musical performances encompassing Opera Atelier, Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort (the Play of Daniel being only a recent example of such investigation).
Forgive me the preamble, but I think it’s vital to explain why this is important and not just a concert or a musical performance.
Exquisite as the performances were, the framework changes everything. Those of us who still go to church have a bit of a grasp, through the influential sonorities of Handel or Bach. When you watch the opening ceremonies of an Olympics, the national anthem (hopefully done without tampering) at a baseball game, you’re in a similar relationship between the music, the words and the assembled people. It’s important to recognize that when you’re singing the anthem before a hockey game or singing a hymn in church, you’re not the audience nor the performer, but something very different, and it is meant to stir you up. At such times –thinking of the notion of transubstantiation that may or may not describe what happens for you during communion, depending on your beliefs—there is a kind of ritual, giving immanent meaning to the music as everyone is united in their celebration.
But we don’t do this very much anymore, and so we lose the sense of much of the music from the past, when music was not ubiquitous on our electronic devices or coming out of the speakers to encourage us to shop at Christmas Time. Music was more rare and magical for people. The most extreme case of this that I am aware of –at least in the story I learned long ago, that is probably now understood to be bogus—was that Handel’s coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest” was only to be played at royal coronations, and therefore so rare as to not be heard by some in their entire lifetime. We now have sound systems, recordings, and so one can hear “Zadok the Priest”, but in theory it was impossibly rare.
I don’t know if you can tell, but I loved this concert that ventured into different territory beyond performance. We were re-enacting a public ritual from long ago, and I say “we” because the audience weren’t merely passive viewers. Whether it was McNabney or conductor Daniel Taylor who conceived & curated this event, they changed the usual ground-rules for a concert.
The evening was organized into a service: re-enacting a coronation, with a few modern pieces added. Bill Coleman silently portrayed King George II, while Alan Gallichan played the archbishop. During Zadok the Priest, in the long gradual build-up of tension, we saw the Bishop put a crown upon the King’s head, and then the two advanced towards us (the congregation?), leading to the shattering climax as the chorus came in. The orchestra was a nice size to work with that fabulous chorus, comprised of a string quartet, two oboes, two trumpets, drums and organ.
This wasn’t any old chorus, as Taylor looked out upon a small ensemble of some of the best singers in the city, namely Theatre of Early Music (TEM). The magnificent chorus included Ellen McAteer (fresh from Friday night’s Rape of Lucretia) Asitha Tennekoon (heard in Tapestry Opera’s Rocking Horse Winner), Alex Dobson, and Toronto Masque Theatre’s Larry Beckwith (whose facial expressions throughout were one of the great joys of the evening). Hearing this in Walter Hall was a bit surprising, given that choral music with organ usually hides in the vague acoustics of churches, rather than such a precise space. Matthew Larkin’s organ playing was therefore required to have a precision, indeed, a perfection under which organists don’t normally labour. I was feeling a bit old hearing that the organ in this space is being refurbished, as I recall reviewing Charles Peaker playing it in its first year(perhaps 1976?) as an undergrad writing for the Varsity.
I was struck by the sentiments stirred up at this concert. We heard wonderful music including “Worthy Is the Lamb”, but also participated in singing Parry’s “Jerusalem”, admittedly an anachronism that served to personalize the event. I wonder, would the crowd in the 18th Century have cried out “God Save the King” along with the chorus in “Zadok the Priest”? Listening to this performance, I have to wonder. It’s perhaps the most functional earworm I can think of, if as a result, one can’t resist the temptation to walk along saying “God Save the King”! (as I did for the next hour) But notice that it’s not wrong to be sentimental, not in this case. This isn’t a piece of art, it’s a practical composition for an event, intended to stir up our feelings. When they sing “Alleluia” (the one in this piece, not the only Alleluia of the night) it’s a genuine prayer, not just a bit of singing.
And of course those feelings are supposed to be there. No tears? Check for a pulse.
Listen to this performance (not nearly as period-accurate as what we heard) and now imagine a crown placed on the head of a king.
We have it all wrong, listening to this as a “concert piece”. That’s what it becomes I suppose, in the same way that a ballet score played at a symphony hall is changed. But originally? It’s a coronation anthem meant for an event like what we saw re-enacted tonight.