Angela Hewitt in Goldberg Variations

Angela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations at Toronto Summer Music Festival at the Koerner Hall. Photo by James Ireland

There is a scene in Ian McEwan’s Saturday in which Angela Hewitt makes an appearance — indirectly, in a recording. The protagonist, an haute bourgeois surgeon Dr Perowne, likes listening to classical music in his operating theatre, and on one such occasion he puts on Bach’s Goldberg Variations on modern piano, played by Angela Hewitt. (McEwan has since shared in many interviews why he prefers Hewitt’s Bach best; Saturday is not among best books, but given that he’s written a lot of novels that take place in the past before Hewitt, the possibilities of placing her in other novels I suspect weren’t many.) Goldberg Variations has had an eventful career in literature. There is the Nancy Huston’s eponymous novel, and Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. Thomas Bernhard also uses it in his bizarre Americanized fantasy of Glenn Gould, The Loser. McEwan however seems to have been gently–and rightly–insisting on decoupling the Goldberg from its most legendary proponent, Gould, and hearing it as very much an open, contemporary, everybody’s (not GG’s) work of art, and not an insurmountable massif.

The association it gives it in Saturday — with upper middle classes with refined leisure pursuits — is less fortunate and echoes the one that’s followed the Variations since the beginning. For the longest time it was accepted as true that Bach composed the work so an anxious insomniac noble could have his late nights and early mornings filled with entertainment, but that theory has since been demoted as apocryphal. It’s not certain who or why commissioned it and whether Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was in fact its first performer, but the piece was published mid-18th century and a few first edition copies still exist in the world. Its description was Keyboard exercise, consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals. The playing of a piece written for an instrument with upper and lower keyboards on a modern single-manual piano is fascinating to watch too, as hands do an incredible amount of crossing and fluttering about.

What struck me the most in Hewitt’s performance is the humanity of it. I expect the two extremes in the interpretation of the Variations on modern piano are 1 – the mechanical, super-precise, unsentimental roll-out (and the emotion will, proponents of this approach would tell you, communicate itself and take care of itself), and 2 – a post-Romantic take with a whole gamut of idiosyncrasies of what Gould mocked while commenting on his 1980s recording of Variations as a lot of piano-playing (eg. rubato, extreme contrasts, open sentiment, intimacy). Hewitt was closer to the 2, and I’m glad of it. There’s a huge difference between a live Goldberg and a recorded one, and not only because the recorded ones will be unrealistically polished: there’s a body present in a live concert and observing it negotiating the work’s twists and turns becomes an important dimension of the work itself. Hewitt’s nods, bright smiles, frowns, the raising of eyebrows, all added a dimension to the music.

Hewitt held the reins securely. In a couple of tangled spots the hold on the the ultrasonic speed of beat was tenuous — but mostly she was one with the piece, which she’s recorded and performed many times and plays from memory. Aria that opens the work was calm and embellished in moderation; when it returned at the end, it came more daringly ornamented, with appropriately messy hair after a wild ride.

The piano nerdery that accompanies the Goldberg can enhance the listening but is not essential. Here’s some of it. The initial Aria is the base from which variations are supposed to ensue, but only the baseline (left hand, lower pitch part of score) of the Aria is used for that purpose, not its melody – so what follows are variations only loosely. Soon enough Bach starts playing with the canon format – a unison canon on one keyboard (when the melody and its echo barging in are on same notes, octave up or down) at No. 3, Canon from the second (two notes difference between initial canon and its echo) in 6, Canone alla terza (a third up) at 9 et cetera with the gradual progression to nine notes distance and a switch to a new thing altogether, a quodlibet that quotes from the songs that the listeners of the era would have recognized, before finishing with the Aria. Each of these is followed by further variations, some specified for 2 keyboards, some for 1. None of this the listener needs to know to enjoy the piece. About 80 percent of Goldberg does not sound at all like a keyboard exercise, and the 20 percent that does is sandwiched amidst so much trippy beauty that you easily don’t notice it.

What’s the future of the Goldberg Variations? Not a huge number of pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists are its advocates today, perhaps believing that it doesn’t need advocating what with the Gould colossus still casting its shadow. It is not often performed in Canada (I expect neither in the US) as it usually demands a concert with nothing else on the program and a passionate performer-advocate, not to mention a crowd of devoted Goldbergphiles who will come out for this work specifically. Perhaps future concerts will include video projections, lighting design, choreography, or choral transcriptions in the style of Accentus? Multiple performers on different keyboards? Why has this not happened yet? Perhaps because while preserved in aspic of admiration in recordings and literature, Goldberg Variations live performance is not on the up? I am surprised by how few people love it (while many more easily declare admiration).

In any case, Angela Hewitt is doing her part (and how) in keeping the GV alive and circulating, especially among the more easily distracted anglophone populations. Should she come with a Goldberg to a hall near you, don’t miss it.

ALERT: A mezzo Cesare coming up

Britain’s Opera North recently announced the 19/20 season and whaddaya know: a mezzo Cesare is in the offing, that precious and almost extinct species.

This fall, the northern four-city opera is reviving Tim Albery’s 2012 Cesare, which also starred a mezzo in the title role, Pamela Helen Stephen (below). This year, the role goes to Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringyte alongside Sophie Bevan’s Cleopatra.

Pamela Helen Stephen in Opera North’s 2012 production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Leipzig and Damascus Meet Again

Tale of Two Cities, Toronto 2019 – Photo by Bruce Zinger. Front: Christopher Verrette, Maryem Tollar, Demetri Petsalakis and Naghmeh Farahmand

Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House, one of Alison Mackay’s most popular and talked about programs for Tafelmusik, is about to travel to the US and I wonder what Americans will take from it. ISIL came out of the wreckage of Iraq after the US-led war on Iraq, and proceeded to, among other kinds of destruction, flare up the Syrian civil war resulting in millions of displaced people. More directly, the US history in the region has been er let’s say colourful with respect to literally every country there. This includes being a staunch ally to one of the worst regimes on the planet, Saudi Arabia. Yes, Canada is still trading with the Saudis, thanks for that reminder, but maybe the recent welcome change in rhetoric will result in a more substantial change in foreign policy?

The country that stopped trading with Saudis tout court is Germany, which also holds a distinction of being the EU country that accepted the greatest number of Syrian and other refugees when the wave of arrivals started in 2015. And German states have, deservedly, the most prominent place in the Leipzig-Damascus program. I expect the idea for the L-D program came out of the EU refugee crisis headlines though the L-D stays mostly in the past and looks at trade, scholarship and coffee drinking as just some of the many things that Leipzig and Damascus shared in the course of their respective histories.

Actor Alon Nashman narrates in between the musical numbers, and Marshall Pynkoski’s direction has him enacting Don Quixote — during Telemann’s Burlesque de Quixotte — and falling and rolling on the floor in one of the fights. None of this is weird, and the musicians move around quite a bit, with no traffic accidents. Nashman is a key to getting the whole production to gel: his tone is fairly neutral, occasionally cheeky, and there’s no overacting or self-importance. Trio Arabica consists of Maryem Tollar (voice and quanun – a flat plucked-string instrument), Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion) and Demetri Petsalakis (oud, a magnificent cousin to lute). They mostly performed traditional Arabic songs from the region and occasionally joined a western baroque piece for an east-west arrangement. The Arabic music in part one of the show wasn’t as exciting as in the second part, where each member of the trio performed a thrilling solo and we got treated to an ecstatic finale with a trad Arabic song mixed in with a Telemann Ritornello. Oud being not as flashy as the voice or as visceral as the percussion, Petsalakis did not get the applause on finishing his remarkable solo so let me use this opportunity: applause. It’s too bad we get to hear virtuoso oud players so infrequently in Toronto.

Apart from the short appearances by Monteverdi, Lully and an allegro movement from a Torelli violin concerto (which was spectacular to watch as it requires a lot of elbow grease from the soloist, in this case Elisa Citterio), it was a German show, by the composers who had lived in Leipzig, Telemann and Bach primarily. Telemann’s Concerto for 4 violins in G Major got the musicians moving, with each of the four soloists coming forward and returning to the background. Viola concertos are not that frequently programmed, but this time we got to enjoy the instrument’s velvety tone in the Presto movement from Telemann’s viola concerto in G major. The allegro chorus “Ehre sei dir, Gott” from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was performed in a version without the singing, with the bassoon and the oboes to the front.

Tale of Two Cities goes to State College, Boulder, Denver and Stanford (university concert halls), Santa Barbara (Lobero Theatre) and L.A (the Walt Disney), then to NAC in Ottawa with potential May dates still in the works. More info here.

 

2018 in Music

Bavarian State Opera, October 2018

Music-wise, this is what stood out, locally and internationally.

TOP FIVE: In Toronto, Han-na Chang guest-conducting the TSO in Mahler 5 was an experience out of the ordinary. Nicole Lizee’s Tables Turned at Tapestry/Luminato, though small in scale and budget, was large in innovation and theatre magic. Tafelmusik’s Safe Haven, programmed around the themes of refugees and immigration from baroque onward was a musical statement that we all needed. I went to Hockey Noir, an opera by Andre Ristic, not expecting much as I’ve no great interest in hockey, but I was hooked immediately. Fun Home, a musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, was joy and tears from start to finish.

At home, the most significant event in large scale opera was arguably Rufus Wainwright and Daniel McIvor’s Hadrian. It looks like of all the Toronto-area opera critics I’ve liked it the most? Which is not to say I was a fan, but its ambition, I have to say, appealed, and the fact that it engaged the brain as well as the raw emotion. McVicar’s Glyndebourne revival of Cesare, which is a hit after hit after hit and which I own on DVD, tops my Big Opera list, as does Opera Comique’s revival of the bizarre Gounod werk, La Nonne sanglante. The staging by David Bobee is a lesson in how to salvage a work with a smart production. In Munich, I saw Castorf’s From the House of the Dead, and while the production did not engage, the BSO’s orchestra under Simone Young was this opera’s Technicolor dream coat and worth the price of admission. For the brazen deconstruction of Carmen that paid off, the ROH cinemacast of Barrie Kosky’s production is definitely among the highlights of the year. The biggest opera disappointment this year was, in a highly competitive field, Ivo van Hove’s Boris Godunov at the Bastille. It was “people in suits, singing before some video projections” concept. And I paid E100 for the pleasure of squinting from the Bastille balcony. I am not going back; I’m taking the Bastille only in streaming from now on.

Also worth mentioning this year: Picnic in the Cemetery at Canadian Stage, Soundstreams presents Andre Ristic, Juliet Palmer & Steve Reich in Six Pianos, and the very last edition of New Creations Festival at the TSO.

Coming up tomorrow: 2018 in theatre, visual arts and film

And Glyndebourne happened

To pay homage and celebrate the final Cesare sung by Sarah Connolly–possibly the final mezzo Cesare on a major stage, as the CTs have just about completely taken over the role–a few of us made the trip to that little opera house on private property in Lewes. National representation, l-r: UK, Finland, Canada, Australia.

Photo is a deft multi-head selfie taken by Monique C (far right)
The house
Around the house

Back to us on a picnic blanket, minus the UK, who took the photo

We interrupt this program

Oh hi

Seeing this on June 15th, btw. Managed to find a good return that’s also within my budget.

Art song recital in Toronto, AD 2100?

Here’s my March art song column in this month’s Whole Note.

It looks better in print, as always, so do grab a copy somewhere. It is, as usual, free and priceless.

+ + +

On a pleasantly cold February evening, Toronto Masque Theatre held one of its last shows. It was a program of songs: Bach’s Peasant Cantata in English translation, and a selection of pop and Broadway numbers sung by musician friends. An actor was on hand to read us poems, mostly of Romantic vintage. The hall was a heritage schoolhouse that could have passed for a church.

The modestly sized space was filled to the last seat and the audience enjoyed the show. I noticed though what I notice in a lot of other Toronto song concerts – a certain atmosphere of everybody knowing each other, and an audience that knows exactly what to expect and coming for exactly that.

I was generously invited as a guest reviewer and did not have to pay the ticket, but they are not cheap: $40 arts worker, $50 general audience, with senior and under-30 discounts. And the way our arts funding is structured, this is what the small-to-medium arts organizations have to charge to make their seasons palatable. Now, if you were not already a TMT fan (and I appreciate their operatic programming and will miss it when it’s gone), would you pay that much for an evening of rearranged popular songs and a quaint museum piece by Bach?

The stable but modest and stagnating audience is the impression I get at a lot of other art song concerts in Toronto. Talisker Players, which also recently folded, perfected the formula: a set of readings, a set of songs. Some of their concerts gave me a lot of pleasure over the last few years, but I knew exactly what to expect each time. Going further back, Aldeburgh Connection, the Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata recital series, also consisted of reading and music. It also folded, after an impressive 30-year run. It was largely looking to the past, in its name and programming, and it lived in a cavernous U of T hall, but it could have easily continued on and its core audience would have continued to come. Stable audience, yes, but also unchanging.

The issue with a stable and unchanging audience is that the programming will suffer. It’ll go stale, ignore the not already converted, abandon the art of programming seduction. And the ticket will still cost at least $50.

I’ve also sat in the Music Gallery’s contemporary music recitals alongside the audience of eight so it’s not entirely the matter of heritage music vs. new music. Empty halls for contemporary music concerts are as depressing as book events in Toronto, to which nobody, not even the writer’s friends, go. (I know this well; don’t ask me how.)

So, where is art song performance in Canada’s largest city going?

Due to the way they’ve been presented for decades now, there’s a not-negligible whiff of Anglican and Methodist churchiness to Toronto’s art song concerts. They usually take place in a church (Trinity-St. Paul’s, Rosedale United, Trinity Chapel, St. Andrew’s, etc) or a place very much like a church (Heliconian Hall). They are often programmed as an occasion for personal edification – as something that’ll be good for you, that will be a learning opportunity. Why are we being read to so much in recitals – instead of, for example, being talked to and with? Does anybody really enjoy being read to in a music concert?

I sometimes wonder if the classical music infrastructure of concertgoing, its comportment etiquette, regulation of space, fussy rituals of beginning, presentation, breaks and ending wasn’t built to control and disguise classical music’s visceral power over humans? And to keep tame its community-expanding, boundary-blurring potential?

In other words, getting out of the church and the U of T will benefit Toronto’s art song performance. Classical music, including art song, is a pleasure, not homework; it’s inviting the stranger over, not getting together with the same group each time. Some of those who program art song and chamber music in Toronto are already grappling with these questions, fortunately.

Collectìf

Among them is the ensemble Collectìf, consisting of three singers and a pianist: Danika Lorèn, Whitney O’Hearn, Jennifer Krabbe and Tom King. They scour the city for locations and choose places off the beaten path. They held a recital in an Adelaide St. W. loft, and a raucous songfest at an old pub in Little Italy. For a Schubert Winterreise, performed in the more familiar quarters of Heliconian Hall, Danika Lorèn had prepared video projections to accompany the performance and the singing was divided among the three singers, who became three characters. For an outing to the COC’s free concert series, they created their own commedia dell’arte props and programmed thematically around the poets, not the composers who set their poems to music. Collectìf is a shoestring operation, just starting out, yet already being noticed for innovation. Lorèn is currently member of the COC’s Ensemble Studio, which is why the Collectìf somewhat slowed down, but when I spoke to her in Banff this summer, she assured me that the group is eager to get back to performing. Winterreise toured last fall to Quebec and an art song program around the theme of nightmares returns to the same festival later in the year.

Happenstance

Another group that caught my eye did not even have a name when I first heard them in concert. They are now called Happenstance, the core ensemble formed by clarinettist Brad Cherwin, soprano Adanya Dunn and pianist Nahre Sol. That’s an obscene amount of talent in the trio (and check out Nahre Sol’s Practice Notes series on YouTube), but what makes them stand way out is the sharp programming that combines the music of the present day with musical heritage. “Lineage,” which they performed about a year ago, was an evening of German Romantic song with Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Rihm and not a dull second. A more recent concert, at the Temerty Theatre on the second floor of the RCM, joined together Françaix, Messiaen, Debussy, Jolivet and Dusapin. The evening suffered from some logistical snags – the lights went down before a long song cycle and nobody but the native French speakers could follow the text – but Cherwin tells me he is always adjusting and eager to experiment with the format.

Cherwin and I talked recently via instant messenger about their planned March concert. As it happens, both the pianist and the clarinettist have suffered wrist injuries and have had to postpone the booking for later in March or early April. Since you are likely reading this in early March, reader, head to facebook.com/thehappenstancers to find out the exact date of the concert.

Happenstance (from left: Adanya Dunn, Brad Cherwin and Nahre Sol)

In the vocal part of the program, there will be a Kurtág piece (Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, Op.11), a Vivier piece arranged for baritone, violin, clarinet, and keyboards, and something that Cherwin describes as “structured improv involving voice”. “It’s a structured improv piece by André Boucourechliev that we’re using in a few different iterations as a bridge between sections of the concert,” he types.

I tell him that I’m working on an article on whether the art song concert can be exciting again, and he types back that it’s something they’ve been thinking about a lot. “How can we take everything we love about the chamber music recital and take it to a more unexpected place. How can repertoire and presentation interact to create a narrative/context for contemporary music. How can new rep look back on and interact with old rep in a way that enhances both?”

He tells me that they’re looking into the concert structure at the same time – so I may yet live to see recitals where the pieces are consistently introduced by the musicians themselves.

Will concerts continue to involve an entirely passive audience looking at the musicians performing, with a strict separation between the two? There were times, not so long ago, when people bought the published song sheets to play at home and when the non-vocational (better word than amateur) musicianship enhanced the concert-goers’ experience of music. Any way to involve people in the production of at least a fraction of the concert sound or concert narrative?, I ask him, expecting he’ll politely tell me to find a hobby.

“We’ve thought a lot about that actually,” he types back. “It’s a difficult balance. Finding a way to leave room for collaboration while also having a curated experience.” Against the Grain Theatre, the opera company where he now plays in the permanent ensemble, also wants to push in that direction, he tells me.

Boldly Go

There is a corner of the musical avant-garde, it occurs to me as I thank him and log off from our chat, that actively seeks out non-professional participation. There are Pauline Oliveros’ tuning meditations, of course, but more locally there is also Torontonian Christopher Willes, whose various pieces require participation and are fundamentally collective and collaborative. Though he isn’t a musician, Misha Glouberman’s workshops in social behaviour, like Terrible Noises for Beautiful People, are arguably a process of music-making.

But how to achieve an active audience in the small, chamber or lieder situations? It’s easier with choruses and large production, where sing-alongs are possible – some smaller opera houses are already doing it, for example Opéra-Comique in Paris. The Collectìf trio did get the audience to sing at the Monarch Tavern that one time (the Do Over, January 2016) but the experiment hasn’t been repeated in Toronto.

Speaking of pub recitals, Against the Grain’s Opera Pub is a glorious project (first Thursday of every month at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club), but it’s more operatic than art song, at least for now. ClassyAF are a group of instrumentalists who perform in La Rev and The Dakota Tavern, no vocals. Drake One Fifty restaurant in the Financial District has just started the Popera Series with opera’s greatest hits performed in a restaurant full of people, but again, it’s opera, the more glamorous and easier-to-sell sibling to the art song.

Against the Grain's Opera Pub at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club
Against the Grain’s Opera Pub at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club

Will Happenstance, Collectif and similar innovative upstarts, and their more established peers like Canadian Art Song Project, endure over the years, obtain recurring arts council funding and renew art song audience?

With that goal in mind, my immodest proposal for the present and future art song presenter: move out of the churches and university halls. Musicians, talk to people, introduce the pieces. Program the unfamiliar. Always include new music, maybe even by composers who can be there and say a few words. If the music is danceable, allow for concerts with audience dancing. (I’m looking at you, Vesuvius Ensemble.) Engage the people. If live music is to be different from staring at the screen, make it different from staring at the screen.

Some March highlights

Meanwhile, here are my March highlights, which are of the more traditional Toronto kind, though still of interest.

March 19 at 7:30pm, Canadian Art Song Project presents its 2018 commission, Miss Carr in Seven Scenes by Jeffrey Ryan. Miss Carr is Emily Carr, and the song cycle, based on her journals, was written for Krisztina Szabó and Steven Philcox. At (alas) U of T’s Walter Hall.

March 4, as part of Syrinx Concerts Toronto, mezzo Georgia Burashko will sing Grieg’s Lieder with Valentina Sadovski at the piano. Baritone Adam Harris joins her in Schumann duets for baritone and mezzo, whereas solo, he will sing Canadian composer Michael Rudman’s The City.

March 11 at Temerty Theatre, Andrea Botticelli will give a lecture-recital (I like the sound of this) on the Koerner collection, “Exploring Early Keyboard Instruments.” Vocal and keyboard works by Purcell, Haydn and Beethoven on the program with tenor Lawrence Wiliford singing. The only U of T chapel to which I will always gladly return, the Victoria College Chapel, hosts the Faculty of Music’s Graduate Singers Series, also on March 11.

Finally, if you are in Waterloo on March 7 and up for some Finnish folk, the U of W’s Department of Music presents the EVA-trio (cellist Vesa Norilo, kantele player Anna-Karin Korhonen and soprano Essi Wuorela) in a noon-hour concert.

Am I wrong about the future of art song in Toronto? Send me an email at artofsong@thewholenote.com.

Songs pastoral, songs nocturnal

Toronto Masque Theatre is playing its third last show ever at the historical Enoch Turner House Feb 8-10 and I was there last night. (There’s still the Shaftesbury Avenue salon on April 23 and the final celebration on May 12.) Here comes a wee photo reportage, as it was my first time in this cozy heritage building which should def be used more for concerts and book launches.

Giles Tomkins and Patricia O’Callaghan in The Peasant Cantata / Feb 2018

Patricia O’Callaghan and Giles Tomkins sang Bach’s The Peasant Cantata – We Have a New Governor Cantata Burlesque, in English. Belonging to the less known goofy side of Bach’s output, the piece involves a visit to the pub, imbibing, the praising (ironic and not) of the peasant’s feudal master, and the grousing about tax collectors. It ends in good spirits.

A scene from Toronto Masque Theatre’s The Peasant Cantata

The small orchestra on period instruments accompanying the shenanigans: Larry Beckwith (violin), Kathleen Kajioka (viola), Margaret Gay (cello), Sibylle Merquardt (flute), Scott Wevers (horn) and Christopher Bagan (harpsichord). Stage direction by Guillermo Silva-Marin.

A window at the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse.

A couple of photos from the intermission.

Second part had an amplified band — Bagan back at the piano, with Ed Reifel on percussion, John Gzowski electric guitar, Andrew Downing double-bass, with mezzo Marion Newman and Larry Beckwith joining the quartet of singers as the tenor of the group. This was a mix of songs (cabaret, Broadway, pop, a couple of Lieder and a lullaby composed by Marion Newman) on the theme of dark nights and bright stars. Actor Martin Julien read poems by Dickinson, Shelley, Byron, Sara Teasdale, et al.

Martin Julien (centre) with colleagues around him. Toronto Masque Theatre’s winter show of the company’s last season.

One more show tonight, and one tomorrow. Tickets at the door and on Brown Paper Tickets.

New podcast episode out

January Alto is out.

First guest is Victorine de Oliveira, contributing writer @ Philosophie Magazine in France, who talks about her opera and classical highlights this season, books she’s been reading and also the French opposition to the MeToo. (Recorded on Skype, please forgive the extraneous sounds) People mentioned: Lea Desandre, Claus Guth, Kaija Saariaho, Terry Gillian, Paris opera loggionisti, Sarah Bakewell, a historian of the May ’68 Ludivine Bantigny, sociologist Eva Illouz, Virginie Despentes, Catherine Millet & the signatories of the PasMois letter.

Song: Emoke Baráth with Emese Virág on piano, Debussy’s “Nuit d’etoiles” (Hungaroton label, May 2017)

Followed by the conversation with opera director Christoper Alden on directing Rigoletto at the COC, the figure of the “Fallen Woman” in Verdi, working on a Peter Pan play via Leonard Bernstein and Nina Simone, whether his (rent-controlled) apartment in NYC is more Zeffirelli or minimalism, what his worry would be if the Met ever came calling, and what is opera to do in the age of Trump and the internet domination of culture.

I have seen the future of the baroque concert, and it is programmed by Alison Mackay.

Safe Haven / Tafelmusik. Photo by Jeff Higgins

I’ve read good things about Tafelmusik’s multi-media, through-themed concerts, but did not know how special they are until I finally went to one this Friday. Safe Haven, programmed again by Tafelmusik’s double-bassist Alison Mackay, takes on  the theme of refugees and immigration this time. Pitfalls are many around the topic – sentimentality, didacticism, forced parallels, the idea that it’s incumbent upon art to fix historical injustices – but they were masterfully avoided. The multi- in its multi-media nature came from the video and lights (Raha Javanfar, projections & Glenn Davidson, lighting) and spoken text (researched and written by Mackay), with musical pieces tailored in.

Mackay spins the main thematic thread across the countries and continents while also remaining faithful to the orchestra’s preferred musical era, roughly the baroque style era between Lully on the one end (d. 1687) and Vivaldi (d. 1741) on the other. An extraordinary number of composers are on the program, many more than can be heard during regular Tafelmusik concerts because in most cases, single movements are played rather than the pieces in entirety. (And why not; didn’t, as Lydia Goehr argues, the ‘musical work’ as we understand it today emerge at around 1800 with Beethoven?) There are a few forays into our own time and among our contemporaries. A photo or two early on (the US-Canadian border crossing under snow, say), a recurring quote (“no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land”, the verse by Warsan Shire, young Somali-British poet), and at the very end the true story of a Newfoundlander who rescued a boat full of Tamil refugees thirty years ago.

The program itself is knitted into an almost narrative, pieces of music woven into the historical episodes described, often directly tied to the specific people named. The Huguenots had to leave France for England for reasons of religious persecution, the Jews had to leave Spain for The Netherlands, Catholics had to leave England and Scotland for Poland, the Roma had to keep moving through Europe even then, and all the while the slave trade is happening across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Africa is here important part of the narrative and is given voice in the musical program, with Diely Mori Tounkara’s solos on the multi-string plucked instrument from Mali called kora, which sounds a bit like a love child between cello and harp. Plus, the knockout lady percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand added beat to some of the western pieces, and absolutely blew the roof off with her solo on the Iranian daf.

Reading the script was the singer Maryem Tollar. She also sang the two vocal pieces on the program, “Or sus, serviteurs du seigneurs” by Goudimel and Bourgeois in old French and “A la salida de Lisboa” in Portuguese. The voice is non-operatic, which is exactly what was needed in the context – she naturally switched from the speaking mode to singing as a cabaret mezzo. It was simple, and intimate, and right. The only thing that perhaps wasn’t ideal is that during the reading segments she would overemphasize most of the adjectives and add dramatic enunciation to her words where this wasn’t called for. But not too big a deal, ultimately — and not everybody is a trained actor, c’est pas grave. She aptly navigated the microphones, the bows, the chairs and the other musicians–the narrator moves around a lot–and also played the tambourine in the final number with everybody taking part.

Which was Corelli’s legendary Allegro from Concerto grosso in D Major, except rearranged as a jam session between the instruments of the west, east and south with the percussion coming in loud and clear (Toller and Farahmand). A total burst of joy, ear-to-ear-grin ending to an emotional evening that was poignant and playful in turns and so smartly plotted out.

There’s one more performance left – at the big hall of the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Tuesday, January 23. Unmissable.

Safe Have – Tafelmusik. Photo by Jeff Higgins.