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.

The Human Passions

The 15-16 season opener The Human Passions with Tafelmusik under the returning guest director Rodolfo Richter was a good mix: a Francesco Maria Veracini overture in four movements, two Handel arias for the mezzo / castrato (a Sesto aria from Giulio Cesare, “L’angue offeso mai riposa” and the now legendary “Scherza infida” from Ariodante), two Vivaldi arias plus a Vivaldi Concerto for bassoon, and the centrepiece, Bach’s Concerto for harpsichord D Minor transcribed and rearranged for the violin.

The Bach concerto comes with a history—Bach wrote it for the harpsichord by re-using the first two movements of this cantata, and the first movement of this one that only survives as a reconstruction. Richter heard this piece as a child and loved it since, and for this occasion transcribed it for his own instrument, while emboldening the woodwinds with three oboes and a bassoon. Violin and harpsichord are two very different sounds, and it was delightful trying to parallel-listen and guess, especially in the long notes and legato transitions of the violin, the sound of the short, crisp, staccato-y harpsichord. Imagine that the solo instrument here is the violin, and you’ll get the idea:

Another highlight last night was the concerto on the (period) bassoon, with Dominic Teresi as the soloist. It’s an unusual sound to associate with Vivaldi—who composed a whole lot of bassoon concertos in his lifetime, but they’re not nearly as frequently performed today as his violin concertos. The melismas and the semiquavers must be difficult as hell to play on this instrument, and I suppose part of the excitement in live performance is not being able to guess the type of sound that’s coming next. Period bassoon’s is not a beautiful sound, but it’s odd and appealing in its oddness. This was a very welcome diversion in a string-heavy concert.

Among the vocal pieces with the young light mezzo Mireille Lebel, the standout was “Scherza infida”. As I’m not a massive Vivaldi fan, “Gelida in ogni vena” from Farnace is for me a mannerisms trap (like so). “L’angue offeso mai riposa” from Handel’s Cesare is a rather humdrum Sesto aria (take Otter over JDiddy). Any number of other mezzo arias or cantata bits could have been chosen from Vivaldi–hey, “Cessate, omai cessate” is passionate enough–and Handel. But “Scherza infida” was a superlative choice. Though frequently performed and recorded around the world, it’s still rarely heard in Toronto, and the ensemble and the singer did it justice. The fine-tuning, the subtle changes of mood between the instruments and the voice, and the attention to the text were all excellent. Lebel started too dramatic but settled down into the right mode for this aria that is more of resignation than of fury. We lucked out with the da capo too, which was well-judged—and da capo ornaments, it turns out, were all entirely improvised.

The Trinity-St Paul is much more comfortable now with the new seats, so definitely worth a go. Repeat performances on Sep 17, 18, 19 and 20.

Rodolfo Richter and Tafelmusik play Corelli, Telemann, Vivaldi, Handel

Rodolfo Richter

An exciting season lies ahead for Tafelmusik and the HIP audiences of Toronto alike: some of the guest violinists/conductors we’ll be able to hear (if not all! they’re tactfully not revealing the names of the candidates) are actively being considered for the post of the new Music Director/First Violin.

The season opened on September 18 with Rodolfo Richter and the Handel Fireworks program, with a couple of festive, outdoorsy crowd-pleasers heavy on brass and woodwinds, the expected violin solo pyrotechnics piece, and two or three lesser known works. It’s the latter two that moved me the most last night, so I’ll begin there.

Corelli’s Concerto grosso in D Major, op. 6. no. 4 (1714) isn’t that often heard although it has a fairly well-known initial Allegro in which the first and the second violin josh in a sort of a call-and-response, a beautiful movement that can be played very differently by the different bands, depending on what kind of attack, balance, embellishments they go for. It can sound like a march of an even, fully-powered machine, or as a twirl of the spring winds, and last night’s performance was definitely of the flirting breezes kind. Richter and Christopher Verrette across the stage played together with great ease and it was a joy to eavesdrop on this conversation. Richter added a bit of brass to the concerto, to diversify the customarily strings-only sound, and it worked fine once the right balance was established (the brass and the woodwinds started off a little stronger than expected, but settled down in later movements). It was the beautiful piece of the program.

I expected Telemann’s Concerto for trumpet & violin in D Major to be on the pompous and ceremonious side—that’s what it sounds like on more than one recording–but this is what good musicians do: Richter performed it with such conviction that I had to leave the prejudgment behind. He put so much drama and vulnerable intensity in the second movement, Adagio, that there was no turning back: the final Allegro cemented the work as a piece that can seriously stir emotions. (The trumpet solo (John Thiessen) didn’t have a whole lot of flashy to do for the most part, other than act like a stoic subsumed partner to the solo violin.)

Handel’s Royal Fireworks piece was interesting in as much as it brought to the stage an unusual number of period brass players together with a percussionist. It’s the music that was meant to be played at a public fete with fireworks and I can listen to it as a historical curiosity only. On the upside, the wind instruments blended well with the Tafelstrings and there was pleasant melding—an accord–in the tone of the ensemble. I found myself in a similarly detached listening during Heinichen’s Serenata di Moritzburg, originally written to fill leisurely hours of an aristocratic ruler and today coming across as a piece of applied music, or flattery, or nobility marketing, even.

Vivaldi’s Il grosso Mogul concert, one of the composers most virtuoso creations, I expected to be dazzling in its pyrotechnics but a bit of a snooze otherwise (I keep thinking, whenever I hear it, This is just absurd… or, This is like the techno micro-variations—you lose interest after a while). But again Richter’s musicianship came to the rescue: he played “Mogul” as an intimate virtuoso piece—yes he wedded the two opposites—and while the pyrotechnics were all there, he seemed to have decided to tone down the volume (literally, too: the solo extravaganza cadenza was entirely played in about mezzo forte to piano) and engage the listener on a more profound level. What can I say? I won’t be giving up on “Mogul” just yet.

Rodolfo Richter and Tafelmusik repeat the program tonight, tomorrow Saturday 20th and Sunday 21stmore info and tickets. Don’t miss the Talkbacks after the concert, they’re informative and fun.

Tafelmusik-Photo by SianRichards
The musicians of Tafelmusik. Photo credit Sian Richards.

Il Giardino d’Amore concert in Toronto

Maria Guzowska and Katarzyna CichonAs I mentioned in my previous post, the beautiful young people of Il Giardino d’Amore are in town, thanks to the presenter Mooredale Concerts. They performed today, Sunday October 20 at Walter Hall.

What stood out for me:

– the excellent lute and guitar player, Maria Guzowska. She was the only accompanist  to the soprano in Charpentier’s “Celle qui fait tout mon tourment”, for which she also improvised the percussion, and she had another notable solo sections in–if memory serves–Caresana’s “Dorme nimo”. The rest of the time she was a key person in the continuo. I hope we’ll see her again, with this or another band.

– the continuo was good and solid, and held the entire edifice together. Marco Vitale was at the harpsichord and Katarzyna Cichon at the cello: I wish the two were allowed more room to shine and more leadership opportunities and solos. The violins, usually leading the baroque ensemble, were today utterly disjointed (it sounded like there were five of them, rather than three or two, and each sounded differently tuned). One of the violinists came comically under-prepared, with a wrong stash of music and without his own music stand. The music director and the first violin Stefan Plewniak’s own playing in the very first number, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin “Il Grosso Mogul”, sounded slightly out of tune. (At first I thought maybe Vivaldi wanted to make a joke so he made the entire concerto chromatic, but no: I came home, listed to another version of the same concerto on Rdio, and realized that that was not the case.) By the final Concerto grosso by Corelli, Il Giardino managed to meld and sound like a real ensemble playing together. But that was the end of the concert. The band did not prepare an encore, although the audience was willing.

Natalia Kawalek has a lovely voice, especially when it travels to its high register. She sang only a short segment from the wonderful “Cessate, omai cessate”, and she sang it well, but it’s a shame that it ended so quickly: I was left wanting to hear more, the entire wide range of this cantata. I was left with the impression of a good voice, somewhat underused and under-challenged in this program. In her second appearance, Zebrowski’s “Suscepit Israel” she showed off her angelic, youthful inflections, and in “Celle qui fait mon tourment” was finally a bit more daring. The text was somewhat under-digested, and she had to rely on the music stand, but all the same, the two of them, Guzowska and Kawalek, managed to pull it off.

– The introductions to the program done by Plewniak at the beginning of each half of the concert did not help one bit! He seemed unprepared, but also as if he did not particularly care to remember what the items in the program are about. Here’s a suggestion: why not somebody else from the ensemble do the intro talk about the program? The music director doesn’t have to do everything. Why not one of the players, or the musician about to sing, tell us more about what we are about to hear? The program itself was rather light, with many short arias, one discarded number and no encores. I have the impression that these musicians can do much better than that.

Il Giardino d’Amore performed at Walter Hall, University of Toronto Department of Music, 80 Queen’s Park Cres.

Il Giardino d'Amore - post concertFar left Marco Vitale, fourth from the left Natalia Kawalek, red trousers Maria Guzowska, next to her with the cello Katarzyna Cichon. Far right, Stefan Plewniak, music director

L’Oracolo in Messenia è proprio un miracolo

Vivaldi L'Oracolo in Messenia

Vivaldi – L’Oracolo in Messenia – Fabio Biondi conducts Europa Galante, EMI/Virgin/Wiener Konzerthaus, 2012.

An embarrassment of riches, this recording: loads of gorgeous, unusual arias bridged by dramatic recits and lament-monologues; five very different mezzos spiced with fabulous tenor and counter-tenor; a daring, cheeky baroque orchestra that never settles for just a background.

The mature mezzo character, the queen Merope, is sung by Ann Hallenberg with the customary stylistic and technical mastery. She equally shines in the soliloquies of the type reminiscent of the long solos of Monteverdi and French baroque (No. 15 “Ecco pur giunto il giorno” on the first CD and No. 24 “Sei dolor, sei furor” on the second) as in the more traditional baroque arias (just compare her “Barbaro traditor” with “No, non meriti pietà” – both angry arias but sounding very different). She is also splendid in the recitatives, woven through by a bold, restless harpsichord, which will keep you interested at every turn. Her first argument with Polifonte (Magnus Staveland) is a complex business. The undercurrent of the harpsichord adds layers to the conversation, possibly even some erotic tension.

Speaking of Polifonte, the male voices are not shortchanged. Staveland gets, for example, “Se al cader del mostro orrendo”, with a most unusual and brilliant orchestral legwork, one of the top five in this work full of wonderfully weird music, or “Nel mar così funesta” with orchestral sections in all their unrestrained glory alternating for the tyrant’s benefit. Anassandro (Xavier Sabata) is probably the most complicated character of all, in charge of twisting the plot, shifting alliances and fighting his own demons. Sabata manages to make him very believable.

Trasimede, one of the trouser roles, is sung by the young Yulia Lezhneva. S/he pines for Merope and delivers perfectly the mad coloratura arias like “Son qual nave” and “Sin campo armato”. There are all manner of colours in her voice, and she employs the spectrum.  The ingénue (Elmira), in yet another atypical turn, is sung by the darkest voice on cast, Romina Basso. An aria that stands out is “Spera quest’alma amante”.

Elmira’s love interest and Merope’s son Epitide is Vivica Genaux, whose lighter timbre of a young man suits the role well. The remaining trousered mezzo Franziska Gottwald (Licisco) has a very different voice, darker and smaller and intricate – equivalent of a rose in bud which sometimes opens to the benefit of others too. Licisco’s “Sinche il tiranno scendere” is a very exciting ride.

The booklet contains, inter alia, a very interesting piece by Frédéric Delaméa about how the work came to be and the full libretto translated into English, German and French.