Looking back on the history of the early-music movement over the last 50 years, we can say that one accomplishment it made was to shift the focus of the musical canon away from Germany and Austria to other countries. It's understandable that this would happen -- German-speaking countries had a virtual monopoly on great composers from Haydn's day, but the cultural landscape in the preceding centuries was considerably more multipolar -- yet there's still a bias in early music for a few Western European countries. French, Italian and maybe a bit of English music is now de rigueur in early music circles, still there's no push to expand the canon any further, at the expense of more than a few great composers who have been lost to the ages.
When someone goes to a concert of so-called serious music, they generally have one of two kinds of concert experience.
The first is a chance to hear an artistic masterpiece: an immortal work of art created by a genius and performed by an equally brilliant maestro who can interpret the work exactly as the master intended. Think of the TSO playing the entire cycle of Mahler symphonies and you have a pretty good idea of what that's supposed to look and sound like.
The other type is the concert-hall-as-museum approach. Instead of great art handed down through the ages, you experience the music as something kind of alien: coming from another time and place, it doesn't relate to your own experience, and in some ways it has nothing it wants to say to you. It was music to which other people danced, prayed and sang to one another. Like an artifact in a museum, it was left behind by its original owners when they decided they didn't need it any more.
Nobody listens to Jean-Philippe Rameau. This is particularly unfortunate because without him, we'd still be writing music as a series of interwoven melodies instead of as chords and melodies. Most developments in music from the late 18th century on depend on Rameau's contribution to music, namely that music is made up of chords, rather than individual notes that happen to harmonize together. Mozart and Beethoven needed Rameau to develop the capital “C” Classical style. Charlie Parker inventing bebop? He needed Rameau's concept of chords to conceive of harmonic improvisation. Guitar tab in rock and pop music? Rameau again. You get the idea.
I learned the following things from Daniel Taylor and Suzie Leblanc about how to put on a classical music concert last Friday, October 24:
- Be a famous and talented artist. Taylor and Leblanc are without a doubt the most well-recognized names in early music in Canada. They have been blessed with phenomenal voices and have been performing for decades. They are fantastic and are 50 times the musican I will ever be. If there was something less than flawless that they did last Friday, I never heard it and neither did anyone else in attendance.
- Find a university-affiliated venue and get on the tenure track. Trinity College Chapel at U of T is a beautiful place to hear a concert, not least because it has excellent acoustics for vocal music. I can't say it projects bass instruments all that well, but given the star power of the two soloists, it's not as if anyone was there to hear great feats of continuo being performed.
When Marshall Pynkoski boasted that Opera Atelier's performance of Alcina would be both the Canadian premiere of the opera and the first major Handel opera ever performed by the company, it was clear his expectations were high. Since the group's recent successes at Salzburg, La Scala and Versailles, I've felt a barely perceptible anxiety creeping in among the audience at Atelier's performances, almost as if we can't enjoy Opera Atelier without wondering how well they're going to represent Canada on the world stage. I mean, what if the Toronto premiere gets a standing ovation and the same show flops in San Francisco? What does that say about Torontonians as a concert-going public? Are our standards high enough? Our artists good enough? What if we're rubes?
Before the existence of public museums, gentlemen of a certain social standing would compile what they called a “cabinet of curiosities.” Like a museum in that it was a room, or rooms of artifacts devoted to culture in natural history, it differed in that the collection depended entirely on the whim of the gentleman collector and could include anything at all related to history, archaeology, geology, religious relics, antiquities and works of art. It was an approach to culture that depended on the collector’s freewheeling sense of enthusiasm.
One could feel it in the air at the annual Toronto Early Music Fair, where the wide-ranging talents of a diverse group of musicians were on display at Montgomery's Inn, along with a pile of antiques, musical scores and musical instruments, all curated as a labour of love by Early Music Toronto (EMT) and Frank Nakashima.
While we generally think of Elizabethan England as a Golden Age for the Arts, we often forget the political culture of paranoia, suspicion, and suspension of personal rights and freedoms that plagued England at the beginning of the 17th century. The average English citizen could expect to be detained indefinitely, tortured, and even executed if it was suspected that he was a member of a religion that was deemed by the English Crown to be hostile to English interests – namely, Catholicism. This was the theme of the Musicians in Ordinary's latest concert at Carr Hall at St. Michael's College, exploring the sacred music sponsored and composed by the undercover Catholics of England in a dangerous climate of religious persecution.
It didn't look like the Musicians in Ordinary had a particularly large body of work to choose from (given that the concert was dedicated to music that, by its very nature, was intended to remain as secret as possible) but despite lasting little over an hour, MiO managed to put together a comprehensive survey of composers from the English Renaissance, including Byrd, Robert Johnson, Tallis and Nicholas Strogers, and lutenist John Edwards played several solo English lute pieces as well as accompanied soprano Hallie Fishel with the help of a very fine violin band led by violinist Chris Verrette.
It was an interesting theme for a concert both from a historical and musical perspective, and the pre-concert lecture, given by Reverend Lisa Wang describing the persecution endured by Catholics in Elizabethan England was a welcome addition to the evening, but St. Mike's needs to invest in a stage manager if only to remind the octagenarian members of the concertgoing public that they are carrying cell phones that need to be turned off before the concert starts (yes, if you go to a classical concert in Toronto in 2014, someone's cell phone will still ruin part of it). The performers were further hindered by Carr Hall's air-conditioning system, which was left on throughout the concert and was loud enough to render most of the music, especially the lute solos, inaudible (which would have been bad enough without letting a techinician come in mid-concert to try to turn off said air conditioning with his walkie-talkie still on and receiving messages). This is simply not acceptable for a concert that advertizes itself to the paying public. Still, frustration is a powerful motivator, and the Musicians did seem to improve with the disturbances, or at least try harder to win back the audience's attention. Here's hoping they outshine their venue next time.
Although the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has done all three, it is 14 years since Toronto's finest last set foot (a couple hundred feet actually) on the European continent, which makes them near strangers on their current five-nation tour.
The five-nation tour is actually only a five-city tour. It began near Vienna (the outdoor Grafenegg Festival outside the Austrian capital), continued in Amsterdam and Wiesbaden, currently finds the players in Helsinki; it will conclude in Reykjavik.
Not exactly a Napoleonic campaign, you may argue, but then, the days of the three-week multi-stop grand tour are virtually over, according to a representative of Harrison Parrot, the English agency responsible for managing this and many other orchestral visitations.