Do you remember how, at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life (that great film encouraging us to be grateful, to appreciate what we have): George Bailey celebrates and appreciates a return to normalcy after the end of his nightmare?
He laughs that his mouth is bleeding.
He cheers when he sees the Bedford Falls sign, he runs through the streets shouting Merry Christmas, grateful to have his old life back.
That’s how I felt tonight, watching “A Tafelmusik Christmas” at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, a concert to be repeated Nov 26 & 27, and premiering online December 16.
I’m not saying the pandemic is over, but it has been a nightmare that we have been unable to go into concert halls or theatres. It’s also poignant because we haven’t been able to have church services, yet there we were inside Trinity-St Paul’s, enjoying a lot of music with connections to Christmas.
And just like George I was overjoyed to see the familiar mundane aspects of the concert experience, like the St John Ambulance volunteers that regularly help make the concerts a safe experience.
That’s all preamble to saying that perhaps this won’t seem objective, not when the George Bailey who shouts “hurray” (I actually shouted “bravo”) is writing a review. I told my wife when I got home that I thought it might have been the best concert I’ve ever seen.
It was more than a concert. It was truly an occasion. It’s almost been 21 months since their last live public performance at Jeanne Lamon Hall. And A Tafelmusik Christmas also serves to launch Tafelmusik Chamber Choir’s 40th anniversary season, an extraordinary ensemble led by Ivars Taurins since its founding.
There have been personnel changes in the interim. A couple of familiar faces were missing (@baritonekeith? Brenda Enns? ) and not just because features were concealed under a mask. But departures are inevitable given the challenges of the past year and a half. Tafelmusik are fastidious about more than just music. This is the first time I’ve seen a performance where the entire ensemble of singers and orchestra plus their leader wore masks, with the exception of wind players.
Although I am a loyal supporter of companies like the COC or the Met, who offered virtual performances during the pandemic: yet I’ve been pining for the chance to hear music in person. I remember something I heard from the composer Domenick Argento, who spoke of voices in live performance as genuine magic. You can’t fake what singers do, how they can make you feel, by making your air vibrate within you. And thank God they’re back.
Ivars is a scholar of choral music. We had a little something from several centuries, with the Coventry Carol from the 16th century, a piece by Marc-Antoine Charpentier from the 17th, lots of Bach and Handel from the 18th, Hector Berlioz from the 19th and Francis Poulenc in the 20th. Throughout we were also hearing the exquisite sounds of the Tafelmusik baroque orchestra in support of the choir.
Ivars is the most remarkable conductor you will ever see, a choral conductor who treats the orchestra as though they were merely another group of singing voices. There’s this thing he sometimes does, that I’ve only seen once from another conductor, namely Zubin Mehta, where he will create a unique gesture encompassing an entire phrase. So instead of beating the usual way, he is shaping phrases, sometimes big ones, sometimes smaller ones. It’s breath-taking not just because it’s original, but especially considering how well it works. While it’s not a long concert, Tafelmusik chamber choir and Ivars had a workout tonight, singing a great deal of music over the course of the 85 minute concert. Except for two orchestral performances accounting for perhaps ten minutes, a bit like interludes, the chamber choir sang for over an hour, often in extended passages of counter-point, including several big choral excerpts from Messiah, all apt for Christmas. Ivars rarely pushes them, keeping the ensemble prudently within their limits, usually mezzo-piano, gently intricate rather than overwhelming. But they often sing pieces like the Messiah choruses faster than I’ve ever heard them sung, and make it sound easy.
I’m not sure what I’d identify as my favorite. I love “Lift up your heads,” Handel’s miniature demonstration of religious dialectic before our eyes. No other ensemble I’ve heard manages to sound so clear in this piece, so well-enunciated, so intelligible, so persuasive. The Berlioz “L’adieu des bergers” was stunningly atmospheric, Poulenc’s “Videntes stellam” subtler still.
Ivars and the choir concluded the concert with Christmas carols, leaving the audience jubilant over their concluding “In dulci jubilo”.
In retrospect I realize I was a bit insensitive corralling Ivars for a selfie afterwards.
His conducting style is astonishing athletic, a bit like watching a swimmer from overhead for the generous investment of physical energy, his eloquent body language inspiring the singing. In stopping to let me get the selfie he was polite even though my God, that must be exhausting, almost as many moves up there as Cab Calloway. I’m thankful.
The concert is to be repeated Nov 26 & 27, and premiering online December 16. For further information go to https://www.tafelmusik.org/