Questions for David Fallis: Toronto Consort & Monteverdi’s Orfeo

When I interviewed David Fallis five and a half years ago concerning a period production of Der Freischütz my first sentence said that he “is surely one of the most important musical minds in Canada,” an assertion that has only gathered weight with every passing year.

Have no fear, he’ll still be prominent in Toronto’s musical life. While David’s tenure as the Artistic Director of Toronto Consort ends this season, he’ll continue to work with them, as well as in his roles as Musical Director for Opera Atelier and Choir 21.

David closes his final Toronto Consort season as Artistic Director with three performances of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at Jeanne Lamon Hall at Trinity St Paul’s Centre beginning May 25th.  I had to ask him a few more questions.

G.Dou, Spitzenkloepplerin - G.Dou, Lace maker -

David Fallis (Photo credit: Paul Orenstein, digital work by Ross Duffin, background by Gerrit Dou 17th century, Dutch).

1. What has the Toronto Consort meant to you?

The Toronto Consort has been an exciting place to explore so many repertoires of music which are too little heard today. I say repertoires, in the plural: since we perform music from roughly 1150-1650, there are many styles and developments to come to understand (sometimes lumped together as “early music”), and it has been great to have a vehicle for constantly discovering new and beautiful music. This is thanks to our strong base in Toronto, where an appreciative audience comes back year after year, but they naturally want to hear new music each season.

The ensemble has been blessed with great, committed performers over the years, and it has been a privilege to work with them, and get to know them so well.

Since early music is often unknown, we’ve always felt that it is important to give the audience a context, and this has led to great collaborations with actors, dancers, visual artists, world musicians, etc., and to the chance to create scripts and stories which can add so much to the concert experience.

2. As you look back at your years with Toronto Consort, do any concerts stand out, perhaps for the piece being presented, perhaps for the guests or the performance?

This is a hard one! A few possible candidates:

  • our most recent version of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, which sounded even more magnificent than before in the newly-renovated hall at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, with Charles Daniels leading a team of fabulous singers, and Bruce Dickey leading a group of fabulous players
  • the feeling of having the audience join in on “In dulci jubilo” at the end of the Praetorius Christmas Vespers has always been magical, achieving the sense of community participation which we strive for in that concert
  • it was a dream to perform “The Play of Daniel” with a youth choir, and to hear them all sing the Te Deum at the end, with the bells ringing around the church, is something I will never forget

    DSC0166_2

    From The Play of Daniel in 2017: Belshazzar – Olivier Laquerre (l) Noble – Bud Roach (r) (photo: Glenn Davidson) . Olivier Laquerre and Bud Roach appear courtesy of Canadian Actors’ Equity Association.

  • the serenity and beauty of “A Medieval Christmas”, curated by Katherine Hill, with images projected in the darkness
  • countless opportunities to sing great one-on-a-part vocal music with such a great vocal consort – it’s like working in a string quartet: challenging but one of the most rewarding things for a singer

3. Recalling all the different roles with the Toronto Consort, as performer & curator, and impresario, and knowing that you don’t have to do all that for much longer, please reflect, which parts did you find most rewarding, and are you breathing a sigh of relief as far as any part of the job is concerned?

Choosing a program of early music has many challenges. You have to find a theme, find the sheet music itself, decide if it is good music, decide if it can fit the Toronto Consort, make lots of decisions about scoring/arrangements, etc. I have always felt that the beauty and quality of the music must be of first importance, so it’s not always easy to find the perfect piece for a certain moment in every program, but when it works it is wonderfully rewarding. I will miss the “thrill of the chase” in that sense – finding something which is worth hearing that not many other people have noticed.

But I know that there are lots of great ideas and musical programmers in the Consort, so I know that tradition of “searching for gold” will continue.

4. Help us to understand what’s involved in being a curator/ impresario for music that existed so long ago.

As I mentioned above, the quality of the music is #1. Then, like a curator, you have to set the piece in the right place, with the right light on it. This means spending a lot of time organizing the order of the pieces to create a sense of wholeness to the evening’s program, with enough contrast, enough common ground, between pieces.

Of course, there is a lot we do not know about musical performance so many years ago, but I like to be inspired by what we do know, and then commit to whatever equivocal decisions we have to make. Especially in the Middle Ages, I think music was often heard and understood differently than today, but that “strangeness” can be very mind-opening if you are willing to explore it.

5. Out of the complex planning and development cycle, what’s your favourite moment when you mount a concert or an opera?

You hope to reach a moment when you feel that the order of the program is settled, and that it has a rhyme and reason. For opera, it is always thrilling when, after weeks of staging rehearsals, we add the orchestra and suddenly the colours in the composer’s ear are revealed.

6. What do you love about the repertoire you’re playing & discovering?

It depends on the particular rep, but in renaissance music, I love the directness of the rhetorical quality. I love the fact that what’s on the page is only the beginning of a piece of music. Almost like jazz musicians today, we are expected to add and create new things, guided by the original piece of music. I love it when what was, only a while ago, some scribbles in an obscure source have become a living piece of music.

7. Do you have a favourite moment in Orfeo?

Another tough one. Again, some possibles:

  • the messagiera scene, where Eurydice’s death is told by an eye witness
  • Orpheus’ response to hearing this news: “Tu sei morta” and his resolve to go to the underworld to get her back
  • Persephone’s pleading with Pluto to let Orpheus into the underworld (“Signor, quel infelice”)
  • “Possente spirto” with its singing, the echoing solo instruments, the harp solo, the slow harmonic pace, the magic of the music as it creates this eerie underworld scene
  • the brass sinfonias, and male choruses which end Acts 3 & 4, so solemn and so different from the lively choruses earlier

8. Please talk about the cast in Orfeo and what we’ll be hearing.

Charles Daniels is divine in this repertoire, and it’s really his piece.

pudwell_laura

Mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell

And we have a great cast around him, with Laura Pudwell as Messagiera, Katherine Hill as Musica, Michele DeBoer as Persephone, Kevin Skelton, Cory Knight and Bud Roach as shepherds.

The instrumental colours are also magical in Orfeo. The theorbos, harp, harpsichords, organs, strings, recorders, cornetti, sackbuts are all used in wonderful ways, and the sounds of the orchestra is constantly shifting.

9. Is there a reason why Orfeo seems like a fitting conclusion for this chapter of your life? [or am I reading too much into this..?]

Well it depends what you are reading into it 😉

[When I was young Orfeo was known as the first opera, a notion that has since been overturned, so it seemed fitting / symbolic. Oh well…]

I’m glad to be ending with Monteverdi, one of the greatest of early music composers, and glad to be ending with such a great team of musicians.

10. How do you relate to Medieval and Baroque music & opera as a 21st century man?

There is a wonderful balancing act you do as a 21st-century musician dealing with repertoire that is so old. On the one hand, you want it to be comprehensible and moving for a modern audience; on the other you also are intrigued and curious about the “otherness” of early music. You are always struck by similarities with the modern condition, and by differences.

With lots of medieval and renaissance music, you know you are often presenting music that much of the audience is hearing for the first time, sometimes because it may indeed be the first time it’s ever been heard in Canada! So you enjoy the spirit of discovery and newness.

Which leads to:

11. You’ve divided your time between older works –both with Toronto Consort & Opera Atelier—and newer ones, as the Music director of Choir 21 (a choir specializing in 21st century compositions). Going forward, will we see you with those three ensembles?

Maybe it’s the same spirit of discovery which has attracted me to both early music and contemporary music.

And, yes, I’m not retiring, only stepping down as AD of the Toronto Consort, so besides my continuing on the team of Artistic Associates at the Consort (next year I will be leading the Praetorius Christmas Vespers for the Consort in December, and doing a program of modern music written for the Consort in February), I will still be working with Opera Atelier and Choir 21.

12. Your music direction & performance of Ulysses (with Opera Atelier), a more mature opera by Monteverdi, likely stayed in your head while you were rehearsing Orfeo. You are acquainted with Monteverdi on so many levels, as teacher & practitioner. Please reflect on our understanding of Monteverdi, the difference between the two operas (reflecting his growth & development but also the growth of opera itself) and how that informs your process.

Orfeo was written for a courtly/academic milieu where the rich orchestration and the beautiful sensitivity to the elegant poetry was central. By the time of Ulysses, opera was being performed in a public theatre trying to turn a profit, so the focus had changed somewhat. The orchestra was reduced, the storyline features more “action scenes” etc. Orfeo has almost the quality of a religious rite, where Ulysses is very much a human, even domestic, drama. But Monteverdi’s sureness in creating drama and bringing the text to vibrant life with his music never falters.

*******

David Fallis conducts Toronto Consort’s concert presentation of Monteverdi’s Orfeo May 25 & 26 at 8 pm and May 27th at 3:30 pm at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

And next season David will be back:

  • a double-bill of two short operas in the fall, namely Charpentier’s Acteon & Rameau’s  Pygmalion  October 25 – November 3, 2018,
    and Mozart’s Idomeneo in April 2019 with Opera Atelier
  •  Praetorius Christmas Vespers in December 2018 with Toronto Consort
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One Response to Questions for David Fallis: Toronto Consort & Monteverdi’s Orfeo

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