2206- BBB - Early Music.jpgNot being an art critic, and indeed like most musicians completely unable to draw anything beyond crude stick figures, I find the iconography of Renaissance paintings difficult to interpret. I am however, willing to bet that the images in a typical painting by Hieronymous Bosch are bizarre enough to give most art critics a conniption fit trying to figure out what they are supposed to mean.

Some scholars argue that the Flemish painter’s fanciful and often downright weird imagery should be read allegorically, as it was intended to lampoon both contemporary mores as well as a hypocritical clergy, while others argue it was proof that Bosch was on a drug trip, specifically ergotism (google “St. Anthony’s Fire”). I’m unwilling to come down on either side of the debate, but I would like to volunteer the possibility that a certain amount of Bosch’s work was a nascent form of art for art’s sake. I mean, given the opportunity, who wouldn’t want to paint a man shitting out a flock of blackbirds while being eaten by bluebird-headed monsters?

What’s interesting for musicians about Bosch is how much music is in his work, and that he clearly finds a great deal of it immoral. Like it isn’t even subtle. In The Ship of Fools, a monk and nun sing along with the boat’s drunken passengers (one of whom is seen retching over the side, having overimbibed) while accompanied by a lute. In The Haywain, a cart of hay is being pulled by a creepy looking crowd of animal-headed demons toward hell and everlasting damnation. The haywain’s main passengers, a man and woman, are oblivious to this despite the apparent entreaties of both a guardian angel and the appearance of Christ a few feet above their heads – they’re too busy studying a piece of printed music in front of them while a white-robed lutenist plays for them, accompanied by a faceless blue demon on an eldritch clarinet.

While I doubt the examples above mean Bosch was completely against music in all its forms, they do show he was not only concerned about music’s ability to corrupt otherwise good people, but was someone who believed that music had a very real power to influence the character of its practitioners and listeners, and that music-making was just as much an ethical experience as it was an aesthetic one. It’s perhaps in this spirit that the Toronto Consort is presenting the Cappella Pratensis as part of its special guest series. The Canadian-led ensemble – their artistic director is Stratton Bull, a native of Cobourg, Ontario, with degrees from U of T and the Royal Conservatories of Toronto and The Hague – is a Belgian-based group that has made Franco-Flemish music its specialty, and their concert, on March 3 and 4 at 8 pm at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre is devoted entirely to composers based in Belgium whose music would have been performed in Bosch’s lifetime.

Although few music lovers in Canada go out of their way to praise Belgian composers, the country was the source of the leading composers of polyphony from the early Renaissance, so Pratensis has a wealth of music to choose from. This concert will likely feature the Missa Cum Jocunditate by Pierre de la Rue from the group’s latest album, released last year to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the painter’s death. If you’re interested in Renaissance music, this is a very interesting concept for a concert program and Cappella Pratensis is a group that has mastered the art of polyphony.

Catch this concert if you can.

Nicola Benedetti: Cappella Pratensis isn’t the only international early music group to show up in town this month. Already with eight recordings under her belt, superstar 29-year-old Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti is a seasoned performer of violin pyrotechnics. She’s already recorded the Bruch and Korngold violin concertos, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major Op.35, which in the modern classical world makes her a wunderkind. “But can she play early music?” is probably the main question critics and concertgoers will ask, and I’m excited to hear what the answer to that question will be. Benedetti will answer it when she appears with the Venice Baroque Orchestra, itself a very fine performing ensemble, under the direction of the Italian harpsichordist Andrea Marcon.

They’ll be playing a massive program of Italian works meant, one assumes, to highlight Benedetti’s formidable talents. But even a talented young superstar and orchestra will have to work hard to hold the audience’s attention for the entire Four Seasons by Vivaldi (itself of full CD length); Avison and Geminiani concerti grossi, a Galuppi concerto, and another Vivaldi concerto are tacked on to the program, for good measure. This kind of show can easily clock in at two and a half hours, and if done well can be an absolutely sublime experience – anything less and the audience will feel like they’ve been beaten into submission. Benedetti’s clearly intended to be the main event in this concert, and this will be a great opportunity to get a look at a brilliant young soloist who can cross over between modern and early repertoire with ease. She has been a regular visitor to Toronto concert halls and will hopefully return in a similar capacity. You can catch this concert as part of the Royal Conservatory’s string series on March 3 at 8 pm at Koerner Hall.

Cor Unum: It’s always good to see new groups on the music scene, and there’s a new group in particular in Toronto that I’ve been meaning to write about for some time now. The Cor Unum Ensemble formed late last year and despite being under a year old is already putting together some ambitious concerts of difficult repertoire. This month, they’ll be playing the St. John Passion by Bach along with the violinist Adrian Butterfield, who will be filling in as guest director of the ensemble. Butterfield is not so well known outside of the United Kingdom, where he is one of the co-founders of the London Handel Players, but he has a dozen recordings to his name that mainly feature late-Baroque and early classical works. He also has the unique honour of being the resident Naxos recording artist for the label’s collection of the complete sonatas of Jean-Marie Leclair, so branching out from Handel and the mid-18th century to Bach seems like a logical shift in repertoire for this chamber player. For its part, Cor Unum is mainly a group of younger players who are both new to early music and the Toronto music scene, and it will be interesting to see what the group will be able to accomplish when under the direction of a veteran player like Butterfield. Youthful vigour applied to standard repertoire like the St. John Passion can make for exciting results, especially combined with the guidance of a leader who is experienced in early music performance practice. Catch this concert at Trinity College Chapel on March 12 at 7:30pm.

Stylus fantasticus: Finally, if your interests lean more towards chamber music than vocal or orchestral extravaganzas, consider checking out a program dedicated to a musical movement from the early Baroque known as the stylus fantasticus. It isn’t particularly well-known today, meriting a mere stub of an article in most musical encyclopedias, but without the stylus fantasticus, Western instrumental music as we know it would likely not exist. It was first mentioned by the Jesuit and polymath Athanasius Kircher, who, writing in 1650, described the stylus fantasticus as “the most free and unrestrained method of composing, bound to nothing, neither to any words nor to a melodic subject; [it] was instituted to display genius and to teach the hidden design of harmony and the ingenious composition of harmonic phrases and fugues.” Certainly before the Baroque era, the chance to compose music freely wasn’t really a possibility for composers. Musical form was largely limited to either the repeating rhythms of dance forms or based on a set melody like a Gregorian chant. Not only was the stylus fantasticus the first chance for composers to test their creativity, but it brought new prominence to the potential of instrumental, rather than vocal, music.

Four hundred years later, it’s easy to see what got Kircher so excited: no instrumental music means no symphonies, and no freedom of form means no sonatas or other compositions that can develop over a couple hundred bars. For the first time, composers, or competent improvisers, could let their imaginations roam freely, limited only by their knowledge of harmony or their technique. Rezonance (full disclosure, I am a founding member of the group) will be performing Italian and Austrian works in this style from the early 17th century as part of the Hammer Baroque series at St. John the Evangelist Church in Hamilton (320 Charlton Avenue West) on March 18 at 4pm, and at Gallery 345 on March 19 at 3pm. If you’re looking for an out-of-the-box chamber music concert this month, this is a concert that invites you to enjoy composers who broke free from tradition and cliché and gave listeners a chance to hear musical creativity at its most expressive. You’ll definitely enjoy what they dreamt up.

David Podgorski is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and music teacher. He can be contacted at earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

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2205 Early 1I’m glad that Toronto’s early music scene has such a wide variety of talent. But every so often, someone shows up and makes even the best musicians in the city take notice. This month, Toronto has a rare opportunity to hear a soloist who’s spent decades becoming one of the living legends of early music. You may not have heard of the celebrated Belgian flutist Barthold Kuijken (pronounced CAUW-ken) but to hear him in concert is to appreciate an artist who has mastered some of the most ornate and technically demanding works of music in the classical canon.

I’ll do my best to describe Kuijken’s influence on the early music movement without resorting to superlatives, but it won’t be easy. He belongs to what’s effectively the first generation of early music players (the previous generation being largely a bunch of eccentrics rather than professional musicians) who, finding modern classical performance practice unfulfilling, left promising careers as modern musicians to find a new style of performing. Given that there was no existing generation of musicians to teach them how to play differently, Kuijken et al. were complete autodidacts with only a handful of musical artifacts and historical treatises to guide them. Since then, Kuijken has become an educated performer and amassed an enviable instrument collection and library of historical sources. But what makes him unique is that, unlike other musicians of his generation, he didn’t have to do it alone. His older brother Weiland is one of the movement’s great viola da gambists, and another older brother, Sigiswald, not only became one the great violinists of the movement, but also founded La Petite Bande, one of the great European early music orchestras, in 1972.

Having family on his side helped Barthold Kuijken. Since moving to early music, he has performed extensively with Sigiswald’s orchestra as their principal flutist, played chamber music with both his brothers, and not incidentally also enjoyed a stellar career as one of the genre’s eminent soloists, generating a staggering discography along the way. This month, Baroque Music beside the Grange brings this legendary flutist to Heliconian Hall in Yorkville for a program that should serve to demonstrate Kuijken’s reputation as one of the greats. J.S. Bach’s sonata for unaccompanied flute, a piece by C.P.E Bach written for Frederick the Great, a couple of Telemann fantasias, and a suite by French composer Michel de la Barre are all pieces that were written for flutists to show off both artistic mastery and technical prowess, and I’m willing to bet that Kuijken doesn’t even find these tunes a fair match for his skills. If there’s one concert to make this month, this is it. Catch it on Sunday February 12 at 2:30 pm.

Profeti della Quinta: One generation inspires the next, and while the first generation of early music players tended to have the same musical and cultural background (Western European, conservatory trained, institutional misfits) the movement they founded means that younger players of today now come from all over the globe and have an entirely different view of the classical canon. A case in point is the Israeli vocal and instrumental group Profeti della Quinta, who came together as an early music group in Galilee and re-formed in Switzerland at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. Since then, the group has specialized in late-Renaissance Italian music, particularly in the music of Salomone Rossi, the 17th-century Italian-Jewish composer of madrigals, sacred vocal music and chamber music.

To hear Profeti della Quinta’s singing is to know that Rossi has been unfairly neglected by history. He’s a top-tier composer in the seconda prattica vein – meaning he could compose sacred polyphony in the style of Palestrina as well as use later techniques such as word-painting in more secular works – who was just as comfortable setting texts in Hebrew as in Italian. The effect on a modern audience is splendid as well as jarring, as if Monteverdi had decided one day that Hebrew was a better language than Italian for his madrigals, but the Profeti are both technically and interpretively flawless players who do justice to both this composer and this style of music. You can catch them in performance in Kingston at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts on February 15 for an all-Rossi concert. If you can’t make it out to Kingston, the group has posted a number of music videos on their website quintaprofeti.com featuring the music of Rossi, Orlando di Lasso and Carlo Gesualdo, all of which I highly recommend.

Ben Stein’s lute: Some artists choose to master the entire canon and others choose to specialize. Still others need no composer at all. We’ve known for years that performers in the Western art-music tradition were able to improvise. Bach’s Musical Offering, which was initially a challenge the composer received from Frederick the Great to improvise a three- and then six-part chromatic fugue, is a famous example, but many other famous composers were also great improvisers, and the tradition of improvisation stretches back much further than Bach. In the Renaissance and early Baroque, a young musician’s education included learning to improvise a melody over a commonly recognized bass line or series of chord changes – like the jazz standards of our time, but shorter and harmonically simpler. But knowing that improvisation was everywhere can change our view of compositions from the period. Printed music written down by gifted improvisers seems less like a painstakingly worked-out masterpiece and more like a surviving specimen from a larger group of improvisations, so players are supposed to perform music as if it were improvised. Less precise printings of music present other problems. But if they are just the shell of the music, rather than the final finished product, does that mean the performer is supposed to fill the gaps by ornamenting a bare melody or the chord progressions? Jazz musicians learn to improvise this way, but conservatory-trained classical players don’t. And as long as historically informed players can’t improvise in the style of the composer, it makes their supposed goal of re-creating the music as the composer heard it impossible.

Toronto-based lutenist Ben Stein may have an answer to this musical quandary. For the last several years, Stein has been researching how musicians of previous eras were taught musical improvisation, with a special focus on the conservatories of 18th-century Venice. Study and practice have let him re-create the part of a musical education from that period and, as a result, Stein can now improvise over a given melody or series of chord changes in much the same way that a 17th- or 18th-century musician would. If this sounds far-fetched to you, Stein can prove it – he’s going to both show and tell his musical discoveries in concert at a lecture-recital at Metropolitan United Church on February 10 at 7:30 pm. He’ll be joined by Lucas Harris on lute as well as Rezan Onen-Lapointe on violin and myself on harpsichord, and I’m pleased to say that Stein’s ability to teach classical musicians some necessary improv skills is as informative and entertaining for concert audiences as it is for his fellow musicians.

David Podgorski is a Toronto-based harpsichordist, music teacher and a founding member of Rezonance. He can be contacted at earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

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2204 Early Music 1It’s a bit of a shame that, with all the marketing behind Christmas, no one ever remembers – let alone observes – Advent anymore. The pre-Christmas season has a rich repertoire of music behind it that often gets ignored in favour of Messiahs, Nutcrackers and Christmas carols, but a few Toronto-based artists are mining this hard-to-market season for interesting music that will keep audiences entertained throughout the month of December.

Musicians in Ordinary have been mentioned in this column before as a group that’s known for doing interesting programs of a seasonal nature throughout the year, and I’m pleased to say they’ll be doing just that this month. On December 9 at 7:30pm, the group will bring a concert of Monteverdi, Gibbons and Byrd to St. Basil’s Church. They’ll also be joined by the Pneuma Ensemble, a new group specializing in medieval music, for some Advent tunes from 13th-century Portugal. Besides being seasonally appropriate (especially if, like many people out there, you’re already sick of hearing Christmas music by the time December rolls around), it’s a concert that won’t be done by any other groups in town any time soon. There’s scarcely any chance to hear any pre-Renaissance music in Toronto, and medieval music is hardly heard anywhere, so I’ll be very interested to hear what the Pneuma Ensemble can bring to the music scene. If you’re looking for a chamber concert in early December, the Musicians in Ordinary and Pneuma sounds like an excellent choice.

The Oratory: If you’re not particularly into medieval or chamber music, there’s another Advent-themed concert worth checking out before Christmas. The Oratory at Holy Family has a regular series of concerts of vocal and chamber music, but this December, the venue has decided to feature a soloist who is one of the music scene’s best-kept secrets. Toronto-based organist Phillip Fournier brings a distinctly Lutheran flavour to Holy Family Church on December 7 at 8pm with a solo concert that includes Buxtehude, Bach and Scheidt. Fournier is a great organist and improviser who plays Bach particularly well, and hearing him play solo is positively delightful.

For some actual Christmas music over the Christmas season, consider a few groups that are willing to explore somewhat less-played music for the holidays:

The Toronto Consort will be putting on an interesting program devoted entirely to Christmas music from the Middle Ages that will feature the work of two notable women from the period. The posthumous legacy of the German abbess, writer, composer and mystic Hildegard of Bingen has already been revived with a slew of CD recordings from the mid-90s onward. Judging from the fact that most of the albums had titles like Canticles of Ecstasy, Heavenly Revelations, and Vision, the artists and record labels were trading on the mystic aspect of Hildegard’s life as much as the music she wrote. One wonders what the undoubtedly erudite and pious 12th-century nun would make of the new age marketing of her records, but no matter. The music remains extraordinary. Less well-known than Hildegard is a later mystic and nun, Anna of Cologne, who, as a 16th-century compiler of hymns and songs from a non-cloistered community, collected songs in both Latin and Middle German by other composers, who, with some very rare exceptions, remain completely unknown to us. The result is a uniquely spiritual take on the Christmas holidays, and where other musical groups emphasize the festive side of the holidays, Hildegard’s and Anna’s music shows us a more somber side of the darkest days of the year. Check out the Consort at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, December 9 through 11.

Cantemus: Still, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to celebrate, and if you’d rather listen to a choral ensemble for a dose of holiday cheer, consider going to a concert by the Cantemus Singers in December. Their concert, “In Dulci Jubilo,” will be a lively and joyful celebration of the music of Praetorius, Hassler, Schütz and Bach. Cantemus is an a cappella group devoted to Renaissance madrigals and chansons, and they will do a fine job with repertoire that’s upbeat and festive. Catch them in two performances, at the Church of the Holy Trinity on December 3 at 7:30pm, and at St. Aidan’s Anglican Church on December 4 at 3pm.

Haydn Operatic Gem in Concert: Among the Classical composers, it’s generally agreed that Mozart is the father of modern opera and Haydn the founder of the instrumental music we enjoy today. But besides composing on an exhausting schedule that included symphonies, chamber music and solo performances specifically tailored to the tastes of one Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, one of the most powerful aristocrats in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Haydn was also responsible for managing an opera troupe for the amusement of his employer. In addition to two concerts a week of instrumental music, Haydn was contractually obliged to put on a different opera every week at the Esterházy palace. And although there was no way Haydn could have composed 52 operas a year, he did manage to write about 15 (that we know of) while employed by the prince, although unfortunately, none of them are performed more than occasionally. But on February 5 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts at 2:30pm, Opera in Concert and the Aradia Ensemble will be presenting one of these forgotten gems by the founding father of the Classical canon.

L’Isola disabitata was an opera written by Haydn in 1779 based on a libretto by Metastasio and is an excellent example of the mature style of a prolific composer whose works were just starting to circulate around Europe. Although we don’t associate Haydn with opera today, he was more than capable of writing great vocal music, and Aradia and Opera in Concert will give this work the level of excitement and interpretive insight it needs. Get to this concert if you possibly can.

Beauséjour in Belleville: Outside the city, Belleville audiences can look forward to hearing a gifted solo musician in the new year. The talented Quebecois harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour has an encyclopedic catalogue of albums behind him and will be coming to play in St. Thomas’s Church in Belleville for a pay-what-you-can concert. No word yet on the program, but Beauséjour is a veteran of solo Baroque keyboard music and a technically flawless musician. If you’re in the Belleville area, you should definitely try to make it to his show on January 15 at 4:30pm.

Taylor’s TEM: Closer to the city, countertenor Daniel Taylor has made a name for himself as a soloist and opera singer, but lately his choir and chamber music performances have been gaining both notice and acclaim. Led by Taylor, the Choir of the Theatre of Early Music is made up mainly of younger Montreal-based singers. January 21 at 8pm, St. Jude’s Celebration of the Arts presents the group in a concert of contemporary and Renaissance a cappella vocal works by some great English choral composers, including Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and John Tavener. Taylor is a gifted singer with a glorious voice who has a fine ear for young talent, and the TEM choir is an exceptional group of voices.

David Podgorski is a Toronto-based harpsichordist, music teacher and a founding member of Rezonance. He can be contacted at earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

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2203 Early Music 1Some people can do just about anything they put their minds to, and Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova is certainly one of these. After starting a career playing modern violin in the outskirts of Moscow during the Soviet era and serving up a steady diet of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Mullova decided to add historically informed perfomance practice to an already impressive skill set and completed the transition with an album of Beethoven and Mendelssohn violin concertos with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in 2003. Thirteen years later, Mullova has gone on to perform with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and with Venice Baroque, and is now a regular collaborator with Accademia Bizantina, a newer group on the European Baroque scene led by Italian harpsichordist Ottavio Dantone. The results have been impressive – Mullova has been plowing through the Bach chamber works, including the six Bach sonatas for violin and continuo, the violin concertos, and the solo sonatas and partitas – and her Vivaldi and Mozart concertos aren’t too bad either.

Ontario audiences will have ample chance this month to hear both Mullova and Dantone in both Kingston and Toronto, as the pair, along with Bizantina, will be touring an ambitious program of Bach concerti to both cities. Catch an international violin virtuoso along with a superb backing band in Kingston at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts on November 12 at 7:30pm, and in Toronto at Koerner Hall on November 13 at 3pm.

Esfahani, harpsichord virtuoso: Solo harpsichord recitals are all too rare in Canada, but with internationally reknowned Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani coming to the Isabel Bader Centre for a concert on November 20 at 2:30, Kingstonians will have a rare opportunity to hear an up-and-coming virtuoso. Esfahani is just 32 years of age, but is already proving that he can do just about anything on the keyboard, with a repertoire ranging from Byrd to Ligeti (via CPE Bach and Rameau). And he plays all these composers rather well – each of his three albums netted Esfahani a slew of awards as well as accolades from critics. His Kingston audience will have a chance to decide the level of Esfahani’s virtuosity and versatility for themselves when he shows off a program of works by Bach, Rameau and Sweelinck. Montrealers reading this may also take some small comfort in the knowledge that if they want to hear this rising star, they need not drive all the way to Kingston – Esfahani will also be playing in Montreal on November 24 and 25 with Les Violons du Roy as part of Bach Sans Frontières, with another virtuoso concert – he’ll give his Montreal audiences both the Górecki harpsichord concerto and a Bach concerto with a cadenza by Brahms.

An Italian noblewoman being shipped off to become queen of France doesn’t seem like a particularly unusual event for Renaissance Europe – unless of course that particular Italian noblewoman happens to be descended from the most notorious, corrupt and despised family of political millionaires in history. The Toronto Consort explores this in their concert program “The Italian Queen of France,” by telling the story of Caterina de’ Medici, who found herself married off to Henry II in 1549 as a means of consolidating her already powerful family’s influence throughout Europe.

Calling Caterina the Italian Queen of France is an entirely appropriate title too, as the French never forgot – or let the queen herself forget – that she was an outsider in their country. Whether this could be attributed to anti-Italian sentiment or to the extremely negative reputation of the Medici family is perhaps one of the great debates of Renaissance history, but the French must surely have known that Caterina’s cousin was the de facto tyrant of Florence who bought politicians and judges to do his bidding. There was also another cousin of Caterina’s, Giulio (aka Pope Clement VII), who was skewered in one of the most bitter political feuds of the century – he was the pope who had to tell Henry VIII of England that he couldn’t annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, as her brother was occupying Rome with an army at the time. Like the rest of her family, Caterina wasn’t particularly popular. She suffered from rumours that she was a witch with links to the occult, and the fact that she was both interested in astrology and a personal patron of Nostradamus didn’t help this at all.

Still, if there was one thing the Medicis knew how to do well, it was to bolster a bad reputation through artistic patronage and, as the theme of the concert implies, one way the queen tried to counteract a negative reputation was through lavish – and eventually ruinous – spending on the arts, including music. French Renaissance composer Claude Le Jeune was a particular favourite under the Italian queen and features prominently in this program; the Consort will also feature music from his contemporaries Adrian Le Roy and Guillaume Costelay. Catch their show November 11 and 12 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre at 8pm.

Toronto Masque Theatre: Another group that’s good for at least one early-music show a year for Toronto audiences is the Toronto Masque Theatre, as they’ll demonstrate this month with performances of Handel’s Apollo e Dafne, at the historic Enoch Turner Schoolhouse on November 17 to 19. Handel was just 24 years old when he began working on this secular cantata for a Venetian concert-going public, but Venetians never got a chance to hear it. Instead, the budding opera seria master shelved it for a year and finally premiered it to a German-speaking audience in Hanover. Somewhat oddly for a Handel work, the overture has been lost, and modern perfomances typically substitute a Handel opera overture instead. No idea if Toronto Masque Theatre will do this, or indeed perform any overture at all, but the concert is a great chance to hear some rare and early (indeed, pre-opera) Handel.

2203 Early Music 2Tafelmusik: And finally, while all of these concerts are worthy of our attention, let us all take a moment to appreciate the most industrious group of period musicians in Canada. I’m speaking of course of Tafelmusik, who will be presenting at least five different concert programs before the next issue of The WholeNote hits the shelves: “Let Us All Sing,” November 2 to 6, celebrates the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir at 35, under the baton of Ivars Taurins. Members of the ensemble make visits to Western University’s Don Wright Faculty of Music November 18 and 24. “Close Encounters…,” an intimate new (and almost completely sold-out) series features “Close Encounters…of the Italian Kind,” November 25 and December 3. Finally, “A Grand Tour of Italy,” with the full Tafelmusik orchestra, December 1 to 4 and again December 6, will be conducted by Rodolfo Richter, violinist of the acclaimed early music group, Palladian Ensemble. Richter, who opened Tafelmusik’s 2015/2016 season, is becoming something of a regular; he will be back in March 2017 for “The Baroque Diva” with Karina Gauvin.

I’m not sure what has motivated what must be close to a record-breaking run of artistic output for an already prolific group, but Toronto and area audiences will have a slew of concerts to choose from in the next few weeks. Among them, one particular show this month stands out for me: “Haus Musik: Underground Elysium” is an attempt to de-formalize classical music and help it appeal to a younger audience. At 8pm on November 24, Tafelmusik will be taking over The Great Hall on Queen W. at Dovercourt, in a program that includes Marini, Purcell and Pachelbel. It’s the second season for Haus Musik, brainchild of new managing director William Norris, and is a step forward for the ensemble, offering a new way to enjoy old music. It’s  well worth coming out to see. Concert halls don’t seem to appeal to a generation that, with iPods and music streaming approaching their third decade, is determined to consume culture on its own terms. If enough young people go out to this show and end up liking it, Tafelmusik will have secured a future audience for classical music – and will be the number one group in the minds of new listeners.

QUICK PICKS

Nov 19: Scaramella presents “Mysteries: Joyful and Sorrowful,” works composed for the imperial chapels and courts of the Habsburg Empire by Schmelzer, Biber, Froberger and their 17th-century contemporaries performed by Ingrid Matthews, baroque violin; Joëlle Morton, bass viol; Matthew Girolami, G violone; Sara-Anne Churchill, harpsichord/organ at Victoria College Chapel.

Nov 30: Alison Melville, traverso/ recorders/ kantele and Julia Seager-Scott, clarsach/triple harp present “Border Crossings,” including works by James Oswald, Turlough O’Carolan, Corelli and Vivaldi, at Heliconian Hall.

David Podgorski is a Toronto-based harpsichordist, music teacher and a founding member of Rezonance. He can be contacted at earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

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Before George Frideric Handel was hired by King George III, England was in some aspects a cultural backwater, at least as far as music was concerned. The main problem was a lack of patrons. The English court couldn’t spend as lavishly on entertainment on the same scale as, say, Versailles under Louis XIV or Vienna under Leopold I, and the Church of England didn’t exactly have much of a budget either. England was, unfortunately, a musically dull country, but encouraging culture was considered both a worthwhile political goal and a civic duty by liberally minded politicians around the turn of the 18th century.

For similar reasons, there was a push in England to both foster a native opera scene and build a national opera house in London – an ambitious project in an age when opera was still less than a century old, and far from the accepted musical institution that it is today. And opera has always been a hard sell for people not already inclined towards music or unwilling to accept the idea of a sung drama. While Italy and countries with an Italian influence on their culture embraced the opera readily, the English in particular didn’t warm to it. Italian opera had been performed in England in 1674; an early 18th-century writer, Colley Cibber, was still protesting that opera was “not a plant of our native growth, nor what our plainer appetites are fond of, and is of so delicate a nature that without excessive charge it cannot live long among us.”

But that didn’t stop the most ardent English opera devotees from trying to popularize opera. They successfully had an opera house – the Queen’s Theatre – built in London in 1705, by enlisting several like-minded (and wealthy) patrons and pre-selling subscriptions. And they commissioned an opera with an English libretto. There was just one problem. After rehearsals had started, the backers realized that the opera (Semele, by John Eccles) wasn’t very good. Changing their plans on the fly, they decided instead to make the debut performance at the new opera house the even more forgettable Gli amori di Ergasto, by Jakob Greber.

The result was a disaster. For one thing, it was sung in Italian, which few audience members could understand, by Venetian singers who, at least one audience member complained, were “the worst that e’re came from thence.” As a national cultural project, it was also a failure. The national ambitions of English opera also came under fire from critics, as some felt that it was a bad idea to debut a new national opera house with an Italian turkey rather than “a good new English opera.” And of course, with so much political capital riding on the success of the venture, political opponents as well as critics had been busy sharpening their knives. They were merciless, decrying the opera house and its lacklustre start as an example of hubris, and its patrons as “Creators, Givers of Being, and God Almighties.” The fact that the opera was in Italian was a particular problem for the audiences of the day, and an easy target for satirists, who predicted that future historians would be misled into thinking that average 18th-century Londoners understood Italian fluently.

With so much jingoistic sentiment lurking in the background, a distinctly anti-opera attitude, a backwater musical community, a dearth of native musical talent, and a composer of any worth seemingly nowhere to be found, English music – and English opera – needed a hero.

Surprisingly, they may have already had one in their midst, in the form of Henry Purcell and his epic opera Dido and Aeneas. Purcell’s opera had everything the English were looking for: an all-English text and a talented composer who was able to incorporate French and Italian musical style into a music that was distinctly his own as well as sounding very typically English. Unfortunately for the Purcell opera, its subject matter (a monarch who is led astray by Satan-worshipping witches) made Dido and Aeneas, with its implied indictment of the English monarchy, too politically charged and too inflammatory to be performed in a contemporary English opera house.

Given Eccles and Greber as the only alternatives, the tragedy of lack of compositional talent on hand to give the English the opera they needed was complete – Purcell having died the previous decade.

Comeback: With Dido having been overlooked by its contemporaries, and no other English-language opera able to fill its place, it’s nice to see that it has been making a comeback in recent years. Opera Atelier in particular has chosen it to kick off their 2016/17 season, and it seems that Purcell’s overlooked masterpiece will finally get the treatment it deserves. After some 300 years, the story of an ancestor of Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, reads more like a foundational myth than an indictment of English royalty today. With a slew of dance numbers, airs and choruses, this is one of a very few operas that’s actually catchy. With a cast of established and rising young stars, top-tier staging and costumes, arguably the best theatre in Toronto, and one of the best opera orchestras in the world, Opera Atelier is the ideal company to be performing this opera. It’s playing this month at the Elgin Theatre from October 20 to 29. Go see it.

Music for Bloody Mary: If you’re not much of an opera fan, if you’re more inclined towards choral music, or if you just prefer Renaissance music to the Baroque, English music is once again on the menu with the Tallis Choir’s performance of Music for Bloody Mary, at St. Patrick’s Church on October 15 at 7:30pm. The Tallis Choir is being much kinder to Mary I than most historians – it’s hard to get too nostalgic over a monarch who ruled for just five years and whose main accomplishments were religious purges – but the concert is filled with some forgotten gems of the English Renaissance. Tallis’ glorious Videte Miraculum and Loquebantur Variis Linguis are the highlights here, and you can also get a rare chance to hear a John Taverner Mass and the almost never-heard composer John Sheppard. The Tallis Choir is a solid vocal group who has made Renaissance polyphony their specialty – this group is one of the best early music vocal groups in the city.

2202-EarlyMusic.jpgI Furiosi: Another chamber group in town that I haven’t written enough about is the great I Furiosi Baroque Ensemble. The ensemble was founded in 1999 by cellist/gambist Felix Deak, soprano Gabrielle McLaughlin and violinist Tim Haig. Deak and McLaughlin were joined soon after by violinists Julia Wedman and Aisslinn Nosky, and that core ensemble remains intact almost two decades later. This is a group that stands out for their fun, engaging thematic concerts featuring a potpourri of Baroque instrumental and vocal music (with the occasional pop tease thrown in) featuring blistering performances and spirited interpretations from a top-tier ensemble to boot.

This month on October 21 at 8pm, I Furiosi will feature music by Fux, Rameau and Lully, in a concert titled “Both Alike in Dignity” at Calvin Presbyterian Church. The group will also be joined by the Toronto’s reigning baroque bassoon virtuoso, Dominic Teresi, who is the closest thing to technically flawless I’ve ever seen in a bassoon player. Consider checking out this group if you’re a fan of chamber music.

David Podgorski is a Toronto-based harpsichordist, music teacher and a founding member of Rezonance. He can be contacted at earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

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