As I sat in the balcony an allegorical tableau seemed to be enacted before me. To my right sat Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, co-artistic directors of Opera Atelier. To my left sat Topher Mokrzewski and Joel Ivany, the founders and key players for Against the Grain Theatre. While the more radical and new seemed to assemble to my left, and the proponents of the historically informed on the right, they all leaned forward in their seats, to take in the first concert from Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, as though this were the very fountainhead of their inspiration. AtG have twice offered a very radical reading of Messiah. And of course Tafelmusik are OA’s orchestra.
There was no mistaking the electricity of the occasion, generated by Elisa Citterio violin and –at least for tonight—the leader of the orchestra. In the wake of Jeanne Lamon’s departure, there’s a vacuum at the top. Concerts like this one are opportunities for Tafelmusik to try out a new leader; I almost said “try on”, because in a real sense it’s a question of whether there’s a good fit.
We saw an ensemble looking genuinely excited, committed, at times grinning broadly while playing. We heard a tight ensemble playing better than I’ve heard them play in awhile. But the biggest difference was interpretative. Tafelmusik sounded genuinely newin their approach, a distinctive and consistent difference discernible in all three of the segments of the concert:
- JS Bach’s Orchestra Suite #4
- A suite of dances from Rameau’s Les Indes galantes
- A comprehensive presentation of Handel’s Water Music
Of course we’d have to attribute this to Citterio. Last year she led Tafelmusik but I didn’t notice anything quite so radical, possibly because there wasn’t as much rehearsal, possibly because she may have presented her ideas more clearly this time. Who can say?
The orchestra executed this interpretation with wonderful unity, an approach of great simplicity, calling for clear attacks, distinct pauses and rests, well-shaped phrases, and manifest architecture, allowing us to experience the structure of the piece. Energy was very high, tempi were on the verge of risky, especially in the opening Bach suite, where I wondered if the orchestra could handle the fast pace.
I looked especially down at Marshall & Jeannette during the Rameau, wondering if Opera Atelier might undertake one of his unjustly neglected masterpieces sometime soon. Clearly there’s no reason to worry about the orchestra’s readiness.
Citterio led both with her playing but also with her physicality, gesturing and even stamping her feet in some of the dance-oriented movements of the Water Music. Her body-language was contagious, as I saw several players emulating her physical eloquence, as though they were also squeezing something extra out of the instruments. At one point she made a brief announcement, complete with a wonderful accent. I think she’d be very welcome in this city, were Tafelmusik to decide to offer her a permanent spot. The players seemed totally smitten with her, both in their wonderful playing and in the smiles I saw on their faces. The chemistry I saw & heard and felt is surely something Tafelmusik will want to experience again.
Before the concert my mind wandered to Donald Arthur, the writer & voice-over artist who passed away in Munich September 21st. As I sat in Koerner Hall I heard his resonant voice in my head, as I recalled our conversation. On the way to the airport he asked me to drive him to a Maltese bakery to sample their pastizzi: because Arthur (who used to winter in Malta), had heard our Maltese bakers praised from abroad. But he had also resisted my fascination and delight (with a shudder) in original instrument ensembles, likely due to his experience of recordings from the early days (the 1970s and before). If only he could have heard the virtuosity on display tonight, so much crispness & clarity. I’m sorry he missed it, as he wouldn’t have believed it possible to play this way on those instruments.
The program repeats at Koerner Hall until the 25th, and at George Weston Recital Hall on the 27th.