Tafelmusik meets Tchaikovsky

Finally!

After waiting for decades Tafelmusik’s concert program tonight with works by Tchaikovsky & Mendelssohn plus a brand new composition felt like a political statement. Already last year led by their new Music Director Elisa Citterio, we were experiencing a higher standard both in the programming and the playing.

And tonight’s amazing concert set the bar even higher.

Tafelmusik Meets Tchaikovsky_Seanna Kennedy Photography1

Tafelmusik Meets Tchaikovsky (photo: Seanna Kennedy)

I can’t be alone in this perception. Since the 1980s we’ve been hearing historically informed performances of works from the 19th century. But Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra have mostly stayed true to their name, rarely venturing past the year 1800.  The thing is, an ensemble can just play a piece without care, or it can investigate what that style requires.  It would be an experiment, but then again: all performances from any ensemble represent a kind of experiment. Citterio is balancing the need for studious care in preparation with a boldness to  confidently take on any music.

Tonight felt like a coming out, as Citterio and the orchestra seemed to lay claim to this music, which sounded so exquisite tonight. I hope they’ll record the works we heard tonight, all for strings:

  • Mendelssohn Sinfoniesatz
  • Mendelssohn Symphony for strings #7
  • Scherzo from A Midsummernight’s Dream arranged for strings
    Intermission
  • Balfour Pyotr’s Dream (world premiere)
  • Tchaikovky Serenade for strings

For Tafelmusik this was a daring venture, and one that I hope they will repeat. It’s funny, while last night I watched a Canadian premiere from the Toronto Symphony, tonight’s concert of works from the 19th century (plus a short world premiere) set more of a precedent, represented a bigger paradigm shift. In a real sense it was new, as they ventured closer to the present day than ever before.

Yes the first half of the concert was wonderful, a series of pieces by Mendelssohn. It struck me as funny as I listened that so much of the Mendelssohn seemed typical for Tafelmusik, given his propensity for counterpoint, a funny cross between Mozart & Bach that shouldn’t bother a Tafelmusik subscriber. The d-minor string symphony #7 is a four movement work that builds in intensity as it goes along. The third movement Menuetto & Trio was especially powerful, at times employing a kind of call & response across the stage between the violins & violas, the phrases so energetic that the stage seemed to come alive with the exchanges of vivid bowings back and forth. This movement was repeated as an encore at the end of the concert in response to our enthusiastic cheers. The fourth movement too was a wild ride, with at times a fragment of melody from section to section.

To conclude the first half Citterio turned to her brother Carlo Citterio for an original transcription for string orchestra of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummernight’s Dream. It’s especially apt when we recall the propensity of composers of the romantic era to transcribe and paraphrase, whether we recall Rachmaninoff’s piano version or Korngold’s more Wagnerian take on the piece in Max Reinhardt’s film from 1935. Elisa Citterio chose a quick tempo that brought the faeries vividly to life.

After intermission we heard a commission that set up the Tchaikovsky nicely. Andrew Balfour’s intriguing Pyotr’s Dream didn’t sound out of place sharing the bill with Mendelssohn & Tchaikovsky, a soulful work at times reminding me of the Barber Adagio in its elegiac weight. It managed to be melodic even while employing second-intervals to create momentary dissonances, an intriguing combination that lent the work true gravitas.

And then the piece we were all waiting for, that gave the evening its title after all, surpassed expectations. Citterio led a reading bursting with confidence, the players often bursting into smiles. You think you know a piece, the melodies running through your head: yet you experience surprise & novelty. The delicate sound of this orchestra’s players lent a new colour to Tchaikovsky that is after all nothing more than the way he must have sounded in his time when the work first appeared. There’s a great excitement in exploring that, to feel you’re in the presence of something new. After the stately processional figure that opens the work, for the most part the tempi were quicker than usual, yet with no loss of accuracy in the playing. I’m filled with confidence for this ensemble.  I feel they can play anything, and hope they’ll give us more of the 19th century.

If they’re reading this, I’m happy to make suggestions.

  • How about the whole suite from A Midsummernight’s Dream?
  • More Schubert, for instance his 9th symphony
  • Anything by Berlioz, for example Harold in Italy (a favorite of mine)
  • Anything by Schumann

I could go on. The point is, I think Citterio has the right idea. Tafelmusik are laying claim to music that sounds extra-special on their instruments with the benefit of their special scholarly insights. And tonight the audience was younger than usual. Is that a coincidence?  I think this is the way to go for the future, broadening their appeal.

This wonderful concert would make a great recording. But for now if you want to hear this remarkable program, you still have a couple of chances to hear Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky & Balfour Saturday & Sunday at Koerner Hall.

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