I am grateful for the gift of a new voice, a new composer introduced to me by Tafelmusik, Ivars Taurins, and Krisztina Szabo. It’s truly a magical thing.
I was pondering the experience of classical music, how so much of what we’re doing is really listening to familiar melodies, whether they’re Beethoven or Puccini or Handel. We live in a kind of golden age, when music is so ubiquitous, so available through various media, that you can find just about anything: and usually for free. So much of what we’re doing when we attend a classical concert is a bit like listening to oldies, melodies we know backwards, rather than anything strange or unfamiliar.
It’s a remarkable thing to encounter something new.
That’s the miracle of this week’s programme at Tafelmusik, titled “Steffani: Drama & Devotion”. There’s so much to this composer, Agostino Steffani, (1654-1728) that they gave two radically different halves that correspond to the parts of the title. In the first half we heard two Christian texts in Steffani’s settings, namely Beatus vir from relatively early in his career followed by his Stabat Mater, a mature masterpiece. That was the “devotion” part, for which soloist Krisztina Szabo wore a beautiful but relatively sombre gown. Tafelmusik Orchestra & chorus were superb throughout.
In the second half, containing a series of operatic pieces, Szabo was in a stunning fuchsia gown, certainly portending drama.
While she will sing the Messiah later this year for Tafelmusik, Szabo is someone who is known for taking on the new and the adventurous. She sang alongside Barbara Hannigan in the world premiere production of Lessons in Love and Violence by George Benjamin (I think it was earlier this year). We have seen her in such edgy pieces as Pyramus & Thisbe, Erwartung and Harawi here in Toronto. In a real sense, the Steffani too is new, repertoire that’s not known to the audience or artists. And she brought a wonderful sense of adventure to the performances.
And yet I am frustrated. I need to explain and offer context.
The first half took two pieces, and saw us applaud at the end of each. In the second half, we went from aria to interlude to chorus: and in the process, stifled the drama. Each of those numbers was part of a story: but was presented without preamble and severed from any connection to anything else. I was leaning forward in my seat prepared to holler for the first aria I had heard, even though it was offered without much in the way of context. But there was a polite silence instead. Perhaps it will be different tomorrow.
Forgive me if I offer as my context, the concert I saw this afternoon: where Atis Bankas introduced each piece. We not only had loads of applause, we had clapping between the movements of a sonata. No that’s not considered good form, but it’s a sign of enthusiasm in an audience who weren’t asking anyone’s leave to show their love and affection for the artists & their work.
I was disappointed to see these opera excerpts presented as though they were parts of a single unit, with no applause nor any encouragement of applause after each one. Call me weird if you will, but I love to applaud. I think it’s one of the components of number-opera, and also a lot of fun. In presenting these arias this way among other operatic excerpts tightly organized without any encouragement of applause: it was as though Szabo were a butterfly, so tightly crowded that she couldn’t spread her wings. Now of course she’d never agree with this assessment because she’s a trouper, indeed a total warrior in showing up, memorizing these new pieces and tossing them off perfectly.
Please note that normally at an opera aria recital we get no explanations. I can surrender to a performance without knowing what’s going on. But please don’t whisk the diva off the stage so quickly. Let us scream our approval first?
Some of these orchestral pieces were amazing, a marvelous smorgasbord of delights. I suppose from a musicological perspective it was wonderful, getting all those performances without any of that irritating applause: except that music is only one part of opera, not its sum total. Opera is theatre, and when you only have music, you’ve removed part of its essence, a necessary part of opera. Doing it this way felt a bit repressed, bottled up, and unnatural. It was pretty, yes. But it was not operatic.
I yelled my head off at the end of course. They deserved it, because they were all wonderful. The concert will be repeated Friday & Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday afternoon at 3:30 at Jeanne Lamon Hall.