Early and Period Music
But for a few instances of momentary curiosity of a few brave, or possibly foolhardy, musicians, modern concert audiences might have never heard the sound of historical instruments at all. A great case in point is the pianist Malcolm Bilson’s discovery of historical keyboards back in 1969.
When Bilson decided to give a concert on “Mozart’s piano” the result was very nearly a disaster. “I have to admit now that I really couldn’t handle the thing at all,” Bilson said in a lecture. “I must be the least gifted person for the job: my hands are too big, and I don’t have the necessary technique such an instrument required. In trying to operate this light, precise mechanism, I really felt like an elephant in a china closet. But I kept at it all week and practised hard and after several days began to notice that I was actually playing what was on the page. Suddenly I found that I really didn’t need much pedal and that the articulative pauses actually made the music more expressive.” Concert audiences and audiophiles should certainly be grateful that Bilson persevered – he was one of the first 20th-century fortepianists, and without him it’s doubtful we’d even hear a fortepiano today.
We’re also kind of fortunate Bilson opted to try using a fortepiano in the first place – the instrument itself is something of an oddity. Even to its inventor, it couldn’t have been considered to have much potential – it was initially a research and development project for the wealthy Florentine Medici family by the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori way back in 1700.
Cristofori fit the stereotype of the eccentric inventor quite well indeed. As if inventing a new keyboard instrument wasn’t ambitious enough by itself, Cristofori also tried making harpsichords out of ebony as well as building his own upright harpsichords from designs by other inventors. It’s not known what Cristofori’s patrons thought of the instrument, but it was likely positive, as he continued to develop his invention over the next 20 years and the technology and building of pianos spread across Europe. By the 1730s, J.S.Bach had a chance to play one and recommended the builder make changes (which out of respect for the composer’s expertise, he duly did, much to Bach’s satisfaction). Still, the harpsichord was generally regarded as the superior, or at least, the more affordable, of the two keyboard instruments until the century’s end.
In the classical era, Haydn composed for the harpsichord for most of his early career, and wouldn’t buy a fortepiano until he was in his 50s, but Mozart, being 20 years younger, would come to favour the fortepiano exclusively. Just 50 years after Haydn’s death, pianos were becoming louder, more uniform in sound and more durable – and with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, mass-produced in factories and available to a middle-class market.
Andrea Botticelli: The fortepiano revival owes much to that first adventurous concert Malcolm Bilson gave in 1969, and there’s been a steady increase in fortepiano players since, but there hasn’t been a professional fortepianist who’s called Toronto home until now. Andrea Botticelli is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s doctoral music program in piano performance who has decided to specialize in fortepiano and Classical repertoire. Like Bilson, Botticelli found playing a different instrument to have an almost immediate effect on her interpretation. “Playing a fortepiano was such an eye-opening experience,” Botticelli says. “All the performance issues that are such a struggle on the modern piano – texture, clarity, balance between the hands – become so much easier on the fortepiano.” According to Botticelli, all the exacting details that composers like Mozart and Schubert took such care in writing, all those little slurs, phrase markings and articulations that pianists struggle with, were actually written for the old 18th- and 19th-century instruments, and a modern Steinway can’t really negotiate the difficult terrain as easily.
“So much of what I was trying to add in terms of expression is really inherent on this instrument,” she says. “Once I really started playing the fortepiano, I wondered how I could have gone through a whole undergraduate degree without ever having heard one.” Botticelli will be making her solo debut later this month at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts on September 24 at 6:15 pm, playing fantasies by Mozart, Haydn and Hummel, as well as a Mozart piano sonata.
It’s really about time there was a resident fortepianist in the GTA, and the fact that Botticelli is willing to base herself in Toronto is yet another sign that the local arts scene has grown to world-class size. There’s been a steady creep of historically inspired practice around the world since the 1970s from medieval/renaissance repertoire through the Baroque period and well into the 19th century, and professional fortepianists have been starting to pop up in major cities around the world in recent years. It’s as if an extinct species has been found again in the wild and is starting to propagate. Like audiences in London, Amsterdam and Vienna, Torontonians will now be able to hear period performances of classical and romantic keyboard music on this compelling period instrument.
Christophe Coin: There are few musicians worldwide as accomplished as Christophe Coin. A gambist, cellist and protégé of Jordi Savall since the mid-70s, Coin has gone on to record over 50 albums ranging from Gibbons’ consort music to Schumann’s cello concerto. Coin also directs the Ensemble Baroque de Limoges and is the cellist for Quatuor Mosaïques, so he’s quite adept in conventional baroque and classical repertoire. It will be exciting to see him as both musical director and soloist for Tafelmusik in their upcoming concerts October 5 to 9 at Trinity-Saint Paul’s Centre. It’s clear from this program that Coin is no slouch as a soloist – he’ll be playing both a Boccherini and a Haydn concerto – and he’ll also be leading the orchestra in symphonies by C.P.E. Bach and Dittersdorf – repertoire that both Tafelmusik and Coin excel at. If you’re at all interested in classical music, this is a concert well worth attending.
Rezonance: Finally, if you’d like to hear a chamber music concert this month, or just want to get out of the concert hall for a change, consider making it out to hear my group Rezonance Baroque play the music of J.S. Bach at the CSI coffee pub at 720 Bathurst St. (home base of The WholeNote), on September 25 at 2 pm.
After Bach settled in Leipzig as the resident music director of St. Thomas’s Church, he was left without a venue to perform any of his secular compositions or chamber works. Fortunately for the master, Gottfried Zimmermann, the owner of the local café in Leipzig, was already one of the hottest music venues in town. Rezonance will perform an all-Bach program that could have easily been heard at Zimmermann’s, including a cantata he composed for the café in honour of coffee. While it’s easy to imagine Bach as overwrought, overworked, and dependent on a caffeine fix to get through the day, this concert features exciting and whimsical repertoire that shows that the brilliant composer may have had a sense of humour after all.
David Podgorski is a Toronto-based harpsichordist, music teacher and a founding member of Rezonance. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the arrival of summer weather – and the attendant cottage weekends – it’s a safe bet that it’ll be a few months at least before next season starts up again for most major early music ensembles around town. Most of their concert seasons wound down the year by the end of May, but there are a few concerts to catch around Toronto, most of them free. But if you can make it out of town, or you’re willing to take a chance on some music festivals, you can actually hear quite a wide variety of good music this summer.
Montreal Baroque: It’s completely impossible to talk about early music festivals over the summertime without mentioning Montreal Baroque, which completely dominates the musical landscape every year. Its four-day, long-weekend-in-Quebec extravaganza is packed with nearly 30 concerts, lectures, free public events, and just out-and-out weird ideas, and features top-tier Canadian talent salted with a few international artists who fetch top dollar anywhere in the world.
And the festival isn’t just about spectacle alone – this year’s is actually delivering a sizeable chunk of the Bach catalogue, including some rarely performed works. A casual glance at their program shows there’s about a half dozen must-see concerts packed into one weekend. The festival will feature Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin, played by rising star Lina Tur Bonet. Then, in the weird ideas category, there’s a concert devoted to The Art of Fugue featuring Les Voix Humaines and the electric guitar collective, Instruments of Happiness, which as a concert idea is likely the perfect way to get people interested in what’s probably the most academic composition of the classical canon. But if you need further motivation to pack your bags for Montreal, here are two other concerts make the road trip worth it: the near-legendary Italian gambist Paolo Pandolfo will be joining the festival for a concert of Bach cello suites (which he’s decided, somewhat mercurially, to transcribe and play on viola da gamba); and harpsichordist Eric Milnes will direct the Montreal Baroque Festival band, which includes the festival's best soloists, for an all-star concert of Bach cantatas.
And there’s plenty more good music to see: a concert of instrumental music composed by Purcell and his contemporaries; soprano Jacinthe Thibault singing late 18th-century French cantatas; and a fantastical concert dedicated to the music of Jean-Féry Rebel, to name a few. If the idea of taking a weekend off to hear non-stop Baroque concerts appeals to you, consider giving this festival a look. It takes place on and around the McGill University campus in downtown Montreal from June 23 to 26.
Tafelmusik Summer Baroque: To some, getting outside the city for a weekend of concerts might be a bit ambitious. Fortunately, Toronto’s top baroque band has a little festival of its own. The Tafelmusik Summer Baroque Festival features a series of free concerts running from June 6 to 18, and while the group isn’t forthcoming on details, they’re solid enough to take a chance on, particularly when they’re free. A couple stand out: Tafelmusik soloists will be playing a mixed program of chamber music on June 11 at 12:30 in somewhat baroque-unfriendly Walter Hall in the Edward Johnson building; if you prefer a full, woody orchestral sound, consider checking out their concert for choir and orchestra at Grace Church on-the-Hill on June 18 at 7:30.
Cappella Intima: One lesser-known group that’s been putting on some great concerts for a while now is also worth a listen this month. Tenor Bud Roach’s ensemble Cappella Intima has been getting quite a reputation for its exciting, well-researched concerts of late-Renaissance Italian vocal music, and their next show promises to be more of what the group does very well. “The Paradise of Travellers” will be an evening devoted to the Venetian stop on the grand tour, featuring canzonettas, arias, and sacred motets written by the composers (Monteverdi, Croce, Banchieri, and, somewhat later, Rolla) with accounts of the city of Venice by tourists from the early 17th-century (spoiler: not all of them thought the city lived up to its reputation). You can catch this show at Trinity St.-Paul’s Centre on June 22 at 8pm.
Have cello, will travel: I’ve always liked the idea of casual classical concerts; so, if you’re not in the mood for a formal evening at the concert hall, consider giving this show a try. Steuart Pincombe is an American baroque cellist who has recently come back to North America after doing a degree at the Royal Conservatory at The Hague. Not content to tough it out on a more conventional, and in all probability, slower, path to a musical career, he has taken the artistic lifestyle to new extremes. He has bought a used trailer, in which he now lives, and is putting on a series of concerts all over North America in whatever venue will put him up.
His current solo project, “Bach and Beer” is a pay-what-you-can concert of three of the Bach cello suites, which he’ll be performing at the Rainhard Brewery in the Junction on June 16 at 7 pm. Each suite is paired with a brew from Rainhard’s own selection. As a concert idea, Pincombe’s approach is fun. But as a beer aficionado, don’t get me started! (Did you know people have been brewing beer using recipes that are hundreds of years old and changing them gradually over time? Sort of the same way music has evolved? Surely I’m not the the first person to suspect the craft beer movement as being a thinly applied intellectual veneer meant to rebrand alcoholism as a fun hobby...oh dear, there I go.)
Anyway, as I said, you can’t deny it sounds like a fun idea. I am all in favour of getting classical music out of the concert hall and into as many different venues as possible. Bach, in particular, is rarely if ever performed on the bar scene; letting the audience relax with some food and drink while listening is a great idea for winning over a new audience.
Summer Music in the Garden: Speaking of the cello suites, the Music Garden at the foot of Spadina, landscaped to follow the structure of the Bach suites, is a good reason to take a trip down to Harbourfront and find an oasis in the middle of downtown. Among the twice-weekly concerts that will take place there till well into September, this summer some younger Montreal-based musicians will be giving a spirited performance of some composers who don’t get much attention at all. Soprano Andréanne Brisson Paquin joins Pallade Musica chamber ensemble – harpsichordist Mélisande McNabney, violinist Tanya LaPerrière, lutenist Esteban La Rotta, and JUNO-nominated cellist Elinor Frey – to perform two female baroque composers (Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre and Rosa Giacinta Badalla) together with the English composer, John Eccle, and the Polish composer, Adam Jarzębski, in a free concert on July 14 at 7pm. This is definitely a group that can take risks with their concert programming, and you can be sure they will play everything on the program with dedication and verve.
David Podgorski is a Toronto-based harpsichordist, music teacher and a founding member of Rezonance. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Funny how new initiatives that should be big news have a way of sneaking up on you. Case in point, apparently there’s a Bach festival (three concerts) happening in town next month and nobody told me! Titled “Four Centuries of Bach. First Annual Toronto Bach Festival” it appears to be the brainchild of John Abberger, who besides being a principal oboist for Tafelmusik and the American Bach Soloists, recorded an album of Bach organ concertos for Analekta in 2006 as well as an album of Bach’s Orchestral Suites 2 and 4 in 2011. His principal accomplice appears to be Phillip Fournier, organist at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, on King St. W. Fournier will doubtless dazzle the audience May 28, in the middle concert of the three, performing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d BWV 565 and other works on the Oratory’s historically inspired Gober and Kney instrument.
The other two concerts, bookending this one, May 27 and May 29 take place at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, 361 Danforth Ave and are, I suspect, Abberger’s “babies.” The first is a concert that includes two of Bach’s Weimar cantatas (Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen and Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben), with a vocal lineup featuring Ellen McAteer, soprano, Daniel Taylor, alto, and Lawrence Wiliford! Info for the Sunday closing concert is somewhat vaguer – sonatas and trios by J.S. Bach, played by “Musicians of Four Centuries of Bach.” But if the calibre of the players in the first two concerts is anything to go by, we’re in for a three-part treat!
Given that the scope of the project is fairly ambitious, the people responsible really should devote more time to publicity. To wit, their website lists only concert titles, venues and dates, and a chance to order tickets. And that’s pretty much it. You may see some concert programs if they update the website by the time you read this, but it doesn’t look like they will. So being somewhat diligent about these things, and wishing always to provide a service to my readership, I did a little sleuthing and managed to uncover a few details, with which I can make some conclusions about this little-known upstart of a music festival.
Which leads me directly to my second reason for exhorting you to catch this Bach festival while you can, which is that the organizers seem to be burying their light so deep beneath a bushel - lack of publicity, last-minute organization - that “Four Centuries of Bach” might end up being how long it takes Abberger et al to get through Bach’s catalogue of compositions for at least (wait for it) four centuries.
Grumbles aside, Abberger has enough experience with Bach’s cantatas and other works to be able to craft a better-than-average performance. And Fournier is a gifted musician: I’ve enjoyed listening to him play a Bach sonata or two on at least one occasion.
Calling anything a “First Annual” festival is equal parts hubris and hopefulness. May the latter prevail!
Toronto Masque Theatre: If you’re looking for a good show to see this month, you need not make any decisions based on trust, either of the abilities of the musicians on stage or of the conjecture of any music critics, look no further than Toronto Masque Theatre’s performance of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, which will be given at the company’s new digs at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, May 27 to 29 at 8pm. TMT was conceived with the idea of doing English 17th-entury repertoire, for which Purcell fits the bill perfectly, and the work will be staged and danced to by the redoubtable Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière, who has chosen to spice things up by setting the story contemporaneously. This is the kind of show that TMT was created to do, with singers, dancers and musicians who will do it very well. If you feel like something operatic, this concert is a sure win.
Monteverdi: If you’re not in the mood for English opera, consider attending a performance of one the masterworks of one of the greatest composers of the 17th century, performed by the ensemble in the city that’s most qualified to do it. I’m speaking of course about Toronto Consort’s final concert of the season, a complete performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della beata Vergine, which they’ll be doing at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, May 6 to 8. I can’t tell you the number of times that other groups’ recordings and performances of this particular work have left me disappointed in the past, particularly with the oft-repeated decision to perform the Vespers a cappella, and I’m happy to say that the Consort will not be duplicating this particular faux pas. They’ll be bolstered by a Montreal-based consort of sackbuts, La Rose des Vents, and that implies that some continuo will also be on hand – entirely necessary for a major work that was performed in a positively palatial church in one of the richest cities of the Renaissance. English tenor Charles Daniels will also lead the group, so you can bet the Consort is going to end this season on a high note.
Tafel’s Two-City Tale: Of course, all these picks lead up to the Toronto early music scene’s safest bet this month. Tafelmusik will be performing another program designed by Alison Mackay, this one based around the coffee-house scene of the early 18th century. “Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee-House” brings Canada’s number-one baroque orchestra together with oud player Demetri Petsalakis, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand and singer Maryem Tollar in a concert of Arabic music along with the music – if the Leipzig connection is any indication – of J.S. Bach. It seems like there’s something in this concert for everyone. Not interested in hearing just another Tafelmusik Bach concert? The Arabic angle adds an interesting perspective. Not particularly keen on world music? Tafelmusik does a good enough job of Bach. You can catch this cultural cross-pollination at Koerner Hall, May 19 to 22, and George Weston Recital Hall, May 24.
Windermere Fan: And finally, there’s a lesser-known group in town that deserves to be gambled on. The Windermere String Quartet is a string ensemble that features some interesting repertoire and is capable of a very spirited performance indeed. Their next show, on Sunday, May 15, will feature a couple of standards of the string quartet repertoire, namely a Haydn quartet and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. But the WSQ has also found a hitherto-unknown composer, the early 19th-century Spaniard, Juan Chrisóstomo Arriaga, who died at the tender age of 20. The WSQ has a following already, puts on a fun show, and is willing to explore the entire length and breadth of the quartet repertoire. They’re worth a shot.
David Podgorski is a Toronto-based harpsichordist, music teacher and a founding member of Rezonance. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Count Hieronymus Joseph Franz de Paula Graf Colloredo von Wallsee und Melz, by the grace of God both spiritual and temporal ruler of the city of Salzburg, had ambitious plans for his new city. Although an unpopular choice with other church officials, as his election on the 13th ballot would indicate, Colloredo had no intention of currying favour with the common people either. His intentions were loftier. He wanted reform.
Reform, in any age, means not worrying over the popularity of your policies, and a certain optimism that you’ll be appreciated for them later. For the archbishop, a well-educated eighteenth-century modernizer and would-be statesman, this also meant embracing the ideals of the new Enlightenment. The religious superstition that still clung to Catholicism after a millenium was to be officially suppressed. No more pilgrimages, and worshipping relics was frowned upon. There were to be no more religious processions through the streets, no kitschy decorations hung in churches and no lengthy orchestral musical interludes during the Mass. Colloredo’s new modern church was to shed medieval superstition for the new ideals of reason and science – and if this meant he could save himself a bit of work, and a bit of money, along the way, then so much the better.
For the 16-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Colloredo’s reform, especially the part that involved budget cuts, was an unmitigated disaster. As the prince-archbishop’s new concertmaster, less music in church (call it cuts to arts funding) meant fewer commissions, and therefore less money, for composers like him. Furthermore, as what we might today refer to as an emerging artist, there was less opportunity for the young Mozart to distinguish himself by writing large-scale works that could get him a better appointment in the future. So faced with fewer opportunities Mozart did what artists typically do – he left to find work elsewhere. In this case, Mozart left for Milan to write an opera.
The result of Mozart’s journey to Milan was Lucio Silla, an opera seria based on the story of Julius Caesar’s predecessor (and Rome’s first dictator) Lucius Sulla. As a career move, the idea of putting on an opera in Milan circa 1772 seemed like a bit of a sure thing. This was the third opera the teenage wunderkind would be writing for the Milanese stage and he would be working with a capable librettist, the Teatro Ducale’s new appointment, Giovanni di Gamerra. Mozart also had a few months to devote to the project, more than enough time for a hyper-prolific composer who had already written some 25 symphonies, seven operas, and four piano concertos. Success, it would seem, was guaranteed.
Sadly, Lucio Silla didn’t go over quite as Mozart planned, and it wasn’t his fault, either. The lead tenor fell ill and his replacement couldn’t handle the part, so many of the best arias in the opera had to be rewritten or cut out entirely. The other singers were late arriving in the city and had to begin rehearsing behind schedule. Not only did they bomb in the premiere, but the opera was considerably longer in performance than during rehearsal – imagine, if you will, a poorly sung opera that seems to never end, and you’ll probably have some idea of how the premiere went. Lucio Silla would be the last opera written by Mozart for an Italian audience, and after a catastrophic run the chastened young composer crawled back to Salzburg and the archbishop, a failure at 16.
I think it’s safe to say that Opera Atelier’s Canadian premiere of Lucio Silla will raise the admittedly low bar set by its initial premiere. But they will likely do a lot better than that! Atelier’s artistic directors, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg played a significant role in the show’s triumphant return to Milan at La Scala last year, under the baton of Marc Minkowski, and an even more extensive role in the triumphant production of the opera in Salzburg two years prior to that (including the participation of the Atelier Ballet in the Salzburg run). Now they get to bring the opera, in their very own production, to Toronto audiences from April 7 to 16 at the Elgin Theatre, including the stars of of the Salzburg and La Scala runs (Kresimir Spicer and Inga Kalna). Unlike Mozart’s Milanese collaborators, Opera Atelier never fails to put on a great show, and this is a Canadian premiere that is long overdue! If you see one concert this month, make it this one.
The Orlando Consort, with over 25 recordings to their name, doesn’t come to town very often (although as a soloist their tenor, Charles Daniels, is well known to Tafelmusik audiences, and a welcome guest), but any chance to hear them live is certainly welcome. The medieval-themed a cappella vocal group is known for their imaginative concert programming as well as some exceptional singing. Their latest project is certainly as imaginative as choral concerts get; they’ve devised a program of music known to have been extant in France during the lifetime of Joan of Arc and used it to score a compilation soundtrack to the 1928 silent film classic La passion de Jeanne d’Arc, by Carl Theodor Dreyer.
As either a work of scholarship or of film scoring, this would have been a formidable workload. The fact that the Consort has accomplished both demonstrates incredible artistic vision and dedication, and I have no doubt the veteran singers will be able to pull it off splendidly. You can catch this at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music, April 3 at 3pm.
Zelenka at Tafelmusik: One composer who’s been getting some well-deserved attention in recent years is the Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka. Since his rediscovery by fellow Czech composer Bedřich Smetana in the mid-19th century and the publication of a catalogue running to nearly 200 works, early music audiences have had more and more chances to hear him over the last few decades. Indeed, Tafelmusik audiences should already be familiar with the composer – the group performed his concert overture, Hippocondrie, earlier this concert season, and an excerpt from one of his sonatas made it on to their fantastic Galileo Project.
A double bassist, kapellmeister and avid contrapuntalist, Zelenka had the good fortune to work in the epic Dresden court of Augustus the Strong, where he wrote sacred works for choir and orchestra. Zelenka was also well-connected. Besides working with the great violinist, Johann Georg Pisendel, he was also a personal friend of Bach and was much admired by both composers. This month, Tafelmusik honors both Bach and Zelenka as composers of sacred music with a concert of Zelenka’s Missa Omnium Sanctorum and Bach’s cantata Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten at their home base at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, April 28 through 30 and May 1.
Bland by name only! A good trumpet player is hard to find, and an excellent one harder still. It’s again still rarer to find a great player of the baroque trumpet, since the instrument is considerably harder to play than its modern counterpart (smaller embouchure, no valves) and this may explain why Justin Bland is so darn busy and why he plays with, well, basically everyone. The Copenhagen-based musician will be visiting Toronto to play with Scaramella in a concert dedicated to music for baroque trumpet, and featuring the music of Bach, Melani, Merula and Purcell at Victoria College Chapel on April 16. The up-and-coming virtuoso will be playing with Scaramella artistic director Joëlle Morton on violone, the talented young soprano Dawn Bailey and local hotshot violinists Michelle Odorico and Rezan Onen-Lapointe, which means that this concert will feature a considerable amount of talent as well as youthful exuberance. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should also say that the concert also features this columnist on harpsichord, whose talent and/or exuberance you will have to judge for yourselves.)
David Podgorski is a Toronto-based harpsichordist, music teacher and a founding member of Rezonance. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
So. Is there any point in reading Beowulf anymore? It has the distinct honour of being the first work of literature from a non-Greek or Latin source text, but while a quick glance at U of T’s course calendar would seem to indicate that the Viking Age epic will likely show up on an Old English literature course, you could very easily complete an entire English undergraduate degree without ever having to read it. In fact, reading it may well be entirely unnecessary. The poem has also undergone countless adaptations and updates to appeal to a modern audience, including Sci-Fi film versions, operas, comic books (there is a Beowulf: The Graphic Novel if you care to read it), novels (including the Michael Crichton bestseller Eaters of the Dead) and, currently, a made-for-TV mini-series created for British television and starring a cast of complete unknowns.
It’s also well worth asking if Beowulf, being over a thousand years old, still holds up as literature. For practical purposes, reading it in the original Old English is effectively impossible. And despite numerous translations into modern English spanning over two centuries (including a very fine, if overly creative, adaptation by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney), Beowulf is, as I mentioned, no longer required reading. As poetry – in the sense of an exploration of language and wordplay – it probably won’t impress a modern audience. If you’ve read it, you will probably recall that the poet’s technique of choice was alliteration not rhyme, and rhythm not metre – not particularly impressive in a digital age. Besides, the plot is next to non-existent and focuses on a series of fights between the titular hero and increasingly large and dangerous monsters. What’s up with that? as they say these days. I also doubt if too many potential readers are at all interested in the period in which Beowulf is set – that is, Northern Europe between the 8th and 11th centuries. I’m no historian, but I take historians’ word for it when they call the period the Dark Ages. (And we haven’t even touched on the issue of whether the Beowulf poet’s own audience would or could have even read the poem themselves.) What were literacy levels like in eighth-century Denmark? What was their book publishing industry like? I’m guessing not very robust. So does the literary canon still need Beowulf, or should it be stricken from the roster of classic literature?
To answer this question, one need look no further than the very interesting life of one Benjamin Bagby who has made a career as (to my knowledge) the world’s only bard, meaning he travels the world performing ancient epic poetry and accompanies himself on the Anglo-Saxon harp. Yes, this is literally his day job. Bagby claims he was captivated by the Beowulf saga from the day he read it at the age of 12, and I for one am prepared to completely believe him. Since he first read it, Bagby taught himself to perform the epic in the original Old English, and has since been touring Beowulf around the world as a solo performance for the last decade. If there is any justification for Beowulf’s place in the literary canon, Bagby’s performance is it, and this month, he’ll be performing the epic poem (with English surtitles) in Toronto at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, courtesy of Toronto Consort, on March 11 and 12. I can’t think of any better reason for historically inspired performance than to revive classic musical or literary works and present them to the public in a manner as close to the original as modern scholarship will let us get. We still have no idea who wrote Beowulf, but if he knew his poem was still being performed over a thousand years later to sold-out concert halls, he’d be gobsmacked.
Swan of Avon: Some literary classics are more accessible than others, some because they’re written in modern English, and some because, unlike Bagby’s Beowulf, tickets haven’t already almost sold out a month in advance. So, while you still can, avail yourself of tickets to the Musicians in Ordinary who are in the midst of a three-concert series devoted to Shakespeare, featuring ornate poetry and elaborate musical arrangements (albeit fewer monster fights than Bagby’s Beowulf). But, like Bagby, “Sweet Swan of Avon” attempts to take the audience into the language of Shakespeare’s time, rendering Shakespeare’s words more the way people would have said them at the time, rather than, as is more customary these days, like a modern dude who happens to have studied Shakespeare. March 19 at 8pm, in the intimate surrounds of the Heliconian Hall, the MiO present the second of this three-concert series, “Shakespeare’s Saints & Sinners,” featuring excerpts from Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet read by U of T prof David Klausner, along with lute songs by Dowland and Thomas Campion, and motets with strings composed by Orlando Gibbons. Violinist Chris Verrette leads a string band along with soprano Hallie Fishel and lutenist John Edwards for a concert that’s 100 percent Shakespearean. Check it out, as well as the third concert in the series, “Shakespeare’s Sorrows,” which takes place at the same venue on April 23, the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.
Sweet Kisses: Shakespeare still too serious? If you’re looking to enjoy a concert that that’s passionate, emotional and exciting, but demands less gravitas than (say) Shakespeare or Old English epics, consider checking out a concert by the Cantemus Singers instead. “Sweet Kisses/Baci Soavi” is a concert of Italian madrigals on March 19 at one of the hidden gems of Toronto’s downtown core – the Church of the Holy Trinity. By the end of the Renaissance in Italy, poetry and music went from romantic and refined to a roller coaster of emotions. One really wonders how Italians of the 16th century were able to make it through the day without making themselves lovesick. Soprano Iris Krizmanic joins the Cantemus singers for a program of music by aristocrat, composer and murderer Carlo Gesualdo and the undisputed father of the musical Renaissance, Claudio Monteverdi, as well as by two lesser-knowns – Monteverdi’s contemporary Luca Marenzio, and the composer/nun Vittoria Aleotti (apparently a nun of the time could write sordid love songs and none of her colleagues seemed to mind). This sounds like a thoughtful, in-depth exploration of the Italian renaissance vocal repertoire by a group that has made madrigals their specialty. Be sure to check this concert out.
Polyphonic grand tour: For the more contemplative, the Oratory at Holy Family Church has a special concert for Lent that features sacred music from the Renaissance that transcends the everyday world of the secular. There, on March 16 at 8pm, you can hear a sung compline and a choral concert which includes choral pieces and arias by Bach, two settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah by Byrd and Tallis, and motets by Victoria and Cristóbal de Morales. It’s a grand tour of sacred polyphony by some of the greatest composers of the Renaissance performed by some exceptional singers.
Alard’s Goldberg: Finally, Tafelmusik is presenting a special concert of chamber music featuring the French harpsichordist Benjamin Alard that is sure to delight Bach aficionados. Alard is just 30 years old but is already working his way through the master’s repertoire for solo harpsichord. This month, Alard comes to Trinity-St. Paul’s, March 31 to April 3, to play the Goldberg Variations. He’ll be joined by Grégoire Jeay, Jeanne Lamon and Cristina Mahler to play the masterful trio sonata from The Musical Offering. Alard is a Bach specialist who already established that he has what it takes to make it as a soloist before his 30th birthday, so it will definitely be worth it to hear his take on Bach’s masterpiece.