Summer is a time when everything seems to move a little slower, the days are longer, and there is more fun to be had than at any other time of year. For musicians, however, the ending of the formal concert season in May or June doesn’t necessarily signal a slowdown, as festivals and special events, frequently featuring exciting masterworks, begin to fill the calendar. Whether you’re looking for a concert in downtown Toronto, scenic Collingwood, or further east in Montreal, this year’s “second season” has something for everyone.


June is a transitional month, offerin season-ending performances by organizations across the city, grand finales showcasing great ensembles and equally great musical works. And as these seasons end, others begin.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute (TBSI), a world-renowned training program for advanced students, pre-professional musicians and professionals, in instrumental and vocal Baroque performance practice, is led by some of the world’s finest musicians in the field. This year’s TBSI runs from June 10 to 23 and features five separate performances by faculty and students at venues across the Bloor-Annex corridor, including Jeanne Lamon Hall and Walter Hall, with the grand finale slightly further north at Grace Church on-the-Hill. As a former participant in this superb training program, I cannot speak highly enough of the quality of repertoire and tutelage each participant receives, and strongly encourage lovers of early music to attend at least one of these performances. Keep the program, too – you’ll be amazed at how many names return as fully formed performers in following years.

If you are planning a trip to Montreal in June, make sure to explore the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, taking place from June 7 to 16. This season marks the beginning of a three-year project by MCMF to celebrate the life of the great Ludwig van Beethoven – Beethoven Chez Nous – featuring cycles of complete works by Beethoven over the course of the 2019, 2020, and 2021 Chamber Music Festival seasons. Highlights this year are the Beethoven Violin Sonatas performed by James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong, and the Beethoven Symphonies as transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt, with six outstanding pianists from across the world. Although the “early music” classifier is often used for music written from the medieval era until approximately 1750, as time progresses and musical art forms develop in new ways, the works of classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven grow older and, by relation, “earlier” within the scope of music history. Fortunately for lovers of this wonderful repertoire, events such as the Montreal Chamber Music Festival provide opportunities to hear superb performers interpreting works from this pantheon of musical history and ensure that, while this music may be from ages past, the sounds it makes are as revitalizing and sublime as ever.

Angela Hewitt. Photo by Keith SaundersJuly

Angela Hewitt is an Ottawa-born Canadian favourite and one of the top pianists on the scene, especially for fans of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. Hewitt comes to Toronto this July as part of the 2019 Toronto Summer Music Festival in a performance of Bach’s mind- and finger-bending Goldberg Variations. Being a Canadian pianist makes taking on the Goldbergs an even more daunting task, the legacy of Glenn Gould looming large over this particular conglomeration of notes and rhythms. Audiences are, of course, able to understand that different performers bring necessarily different interpretations to musical works, a combination of nature and nurture that is almost impossible to define, yet readily perceptible to the ear, especially in the case of Gould! And that individual performers’ take on particular works evolves over time. Hewitt has lived with the Goldberg Variations for a musical lifetime, including recordings in 1999 and 2015, and we look forward to hearing her current approach to the work, as a continuation of her exploration of Bach’s keyboard works and follow-up to last year’s performance of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier. Both the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldbergs are astonishing masterpieces and this will be a rare and memorable opportunity to experience one the world’s most profound works of creativity performed by one of today’s leading Bach interpreters.

Nestled in cottage country north of Toronto, Collingwood is perhaps best known as the gateway to Blue Mountain ski resort. This year, however, Collingwood becomes a hub for summer music through the inaugural Collingwood Summer Music Festival, filling a gap in the community that has been there since 2011 when Douglas Nadler’s Collingwood Music Festival ended its 11-year run. Featuring the Elmer Iseler singers performing Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, the Gryphon Trio and the Rolston String Quartet, the classical music component of this multifaceted festival will be a delightful escape for those already fleeing the hectic city for a more serene locale.


This July and August, Ottawa Chamberfest presents an all-star lineup of Canadian performers, including James Ehnes, pianists Janina Fialkowska and Angela Hewitt, as well as a noteworthy celebration of Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi’s 400th birthday. Strozzi (1619-1677) was an Italian singer and composer who studied with famed composer Francesco Cavalli. Renowned for her poetic ability as well as her compositional talent, Strozzi was said to be the most prolific composer – man or woman – of printed secular vocal music in Venice in the middle of the 17th century, a time when the publishing of original material was in itself a remarkable accomplishment for a female composer.

Toronto Music GardenAlthough August marks the beginning of the end of summer and back-to-school ads appear earlier and earlier each year, the music continues by Toronto’s waterfront. Tucked away in Toronto’s waterfront, the Toronto Music Garden was conceived by internationally renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy in partnership with the City of Toronto’s Parks and Recreation department. Through its labyrinthine landscape, the garden interprets Bach’s Suite No.1 in G Major, BWV 1007 for unaccompanied cello. Each summer the Toronto Music Garden is home to Summer Music in the Garden, presenting a tremendous range of chamber and world music at 7pm most Thursdays and 4pm most Sundays throughout the summer. On August 25, Baroque cellists Elinor Frey and Phoebe Carrai present “Duetto Violoncello,” with works by Bach, Cirri, Thomas and Dall’Abaco. These free concerts provide a fine opportunity to take in music that may be new or unfamiliar, or to explore the sounds of instruments that one does not hear frequently, such as the Baroque cello.

Other Performances

In addition to the larger multi-event festivals taking place, there are also a number of interesting early-music concerts this summer occurring outside the festal realm:

On June 9, fans of Bach’s choral music will be delighted to hear the Ascension Oratorio, a dramatic work structured in 11 movements in two parts: approximately the same size, layout, and duration as Bach’s two-part church cantatas. (Parts 1–6 were performed before the sermon and 7–11 after the sermon.) Presented by contralto Jacqueline Gélineau in Heliconian Hall, and featuring a solo vocal quartet and harpsichordist Brahm Goldhamer, this chamber-sized, keyboard-and-voice performance will be of interest both to those familiar with the master’s works and those wanting to dig a little deeper and explore Bach’s music on a smaller scale.

On June 16, the Tudor Consort presents “The Song of Songs and Songs of Love” at Historic Leaskdale Church in Leaskdale. Featuring works by Schütz, Monteverdi, Marenzio, Palestrina, and Verdelot, this concert provides a window into the Italianate stylings of the Late Renaissance and Early Baroque eras.

On June 30, Westben presents “Viva Vivaldi! The Four Seasons and Gloria,” featuring two of Vivaldi’s masterworks. The Four Seasons, a captivating and expressive set of four concerti is interpreted by violinist Amy Hillis, while the Westben Festival Orchestra & Chorus tackle the Gloria. Make sure to check it out – not only do you get to hear one of the masters of the Italian Baroque, but you get to do so in a barn!

As anyone who has travelled to an unfamiliar place knows well, navigating is often the trickiest part of going somewhere new. This issue of The WholeNote serves as your musical road map, helping you traverse the winding roads of summer music in all its forms without a GPS shouting “Recalculating!” With so many opportunities to hear splendid music, it is impossible to make a wrong turn and I encourage you to delve into some of these magnificent concerts and festivals.

If you have any questions or want to hear my two cents on anything early music this summer, send me a note at See you in September! 

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Luc BeausejourFor the past three years, the Toronto Bach Festival has presented a three-day intensive series of concerts, recitals, and lecture presentations focusing on Johann Sebastian Bach, his world, and his works. Increasing in size and scale each year, the festival attracts magnificent performers and interpreters. This year it runs from May 24 to 26 and includes ensemble performances of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto and his Lutheran Masses, as well as solo performances by harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour and cellist Elinor Frey, and a lecture on Bach and the French Style featuring renowned musicologist Ellen Exner. With such a full and fulfilling roster of events, Bach aficionados have much to look forward to.

Elinor Frey. Photo by Elizabeth DelageThe Toronto Bach Festival is led by founding artistic director and renowned early music specialist John Abberger, perhaps most immediately recognizable as the principal oboist of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, who will be at the helm for both the Brandenburg Concerto and Lutheran Mass concerts. In preparation for this year’s festival, Abberger shared his thoughts on Bach, the master’s works, and how the Toronto Bach Festival provides a unique perspective in the interpretation of this timeless music:

John AbbergerWN: Toronto is a city full of classical music of all types, including strong proponents of Early Music. What led you to establish the Toronto Bach Festival in such a culturally dense arts scene?

JA: First of all, despite the high name recognition that Bach enjoys, and despite the fact that everyone knows he wrote truly great music, a good 70 percent of his music is seldom performed. This is because many major musical organizations have a broader mandate to perform music from a huge repertory and cannot program more than a few works by Bach in the course of their regular offerings. A Bach festival provides an obvious context for performing lots of Bach, and while the Toronto Bach Festival may occasionally perform works by other composers (whose works illuminate our understanding of Bach’s achievements, or works that show his influence on later composers), our mandate is to perform Bach, and to explore as many of his works as possible, the well-known and the less well-known. Consider the wealth of amazing music contained in the over 200 cantatas: in my 30 years with Tafelmusik we have performed a complete cantata on only a small handful of occasions.

Second, I am interested in applying the performance practice research findings of the last 30 years that indicate that Bach habitually used a much smaller vocal group when he performed his choral works. Apart from age-old Victorian assumptions about large choirs performing Bach, many musical organizations are structurally set up to use these larger choirs, such as the Mendelssohn Choir at the Toronto Symphony. I find performing Bach’s vocal works in the way we do (with one or two singers to each part) to be artistically compelling, and I think our audiences deserve an opportunity to hear these great works performed this way.

Third, many cities (large and small) have a regular Bach festival. A city with such a strong and vibrant cultural landscape surely deserves to have a festival devoted to one of the greatest composers of all time. Look at the wonderful success of the Toronto International Film Festival. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a Bach festival that is a cultural destination to celebrate here in Toronto?

This year’s festival features an eclectic mix of Bach’s secular and sacred music. Is there an organizing principle or underlying idea that permeates your concerts and programming?

Absolutely! From day one, a guiding principle for the programming has been that the three main genres in which Bach worked, choral, keyboard and instrumental, should be represented at each festival. This is why we will always have a keyboard recital, generally alternating between harpsichord and organ. Another important artistic mandate is to perform cantatas each year. With so many to choose from, we won’t run out for quite a few years! The instrumental works comprise works for solo instruments (violin, cello and flute) as well as chamber and orchestral music. I strive each year to find a nice balance with the great diversity of genres in which Bach worked.

Why Bach?

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of Bach and his music on the musical landscape of the ensuing 250 years of Western European musical culture. None of the great achievements of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms would have been possible without the path-breaking creations of Bach. But what we really want to celebrate is the uncanny ability of Bach’s music to reach into our souls and speak to us. Many writers and musicians speak of the timeless beauty and transformative power of his music. I believe these qualities have the ability to transcend cultural boundaries and create a bond of shared community among audience and performers alike.

But Wait, There’s More...

...More Bach, that is! Abberger joins his Tafelmusik Orchestra and Choir compatriots in an exciting concert featuring J.S. Bach’s Magnificat and Jan Dismas Zelenka’s extraordinary Missa Divi Xaverii at Koerner Hall on May 9-12. The Magnificat is one of Bach’s best-known small-scale choral works, shorter in duration than the double cantatas but enormously wide-ranging in style and expression. Jan Dismas Zelenka, likely a new name to many concertgoers, is a perfect pairing for Bach, as his pieces are characterized by a very daring compositional structure with a highly spirited harmonic invention and complex counterpoint, providing a musical experience that is simultaneously thrilling and uplifting.

Zelenka (1679-1745) was a Czech composer who was raised in Central Bohemia, educated in Prague and Vienna, and spent his professional life in Dresden. His works are often virtuosic and difficult to perform yet fresh and surprising, with sudden changes of harmony and rhythm; an accomplished violone player, Zelenka’s writing for bass instruments is far more demanding than that of other composers of his era, writing fast-moving continuo parts with driving, complicated rhythms. A prolific and well-travelled musician, he wrote complex fugues, ornate operatic arias, galant-style dances, baroque recitatives, Palestrina-like chorales and virtuosic concertos. Zelenka’s musical language is closest to Bach’s, especially in its richness of contrapuntal harmonies and ingenious usage of fugal themes. Nevertheless, Zelenka’s language is idiosyncratic in its unexpected harmonic twists, frequent use of chromatic harmonies, large usage of syncopation and unusually long phrases full of varied musical ideas.

Sometimes considered Bach’s Catholic counterpart, Bach held Zelenka in high esteem, and the two composers knew each other, as evidenced by a letter from C.P.E. Bach to the Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel. According to this document, Bach was trusted enough by Zelenka for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann to copy out the “Amen” from Zelenka’s Magnificat to use in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, where J. S. Bach was cantor. In addition to composing, Zelenka was a teacher, instructing a number of the most prominent musicians of his time, including Johann Joachim Quantz; his close friends included renowned composers such as Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Georg Pisendel.

Why, then, do we not know more works by this extraordinary composer? Zelenka never married and had no children, and his compositions and musical estate were purchased from his beneficiaries by the Electress of Saxony/Queen of Poland, Maria Josepha of Austria after his death. These were considered valuable court possessions and were kept under lock and key for a century, only being rediscovered in the Dresden archives in the late 19th century. Interest in Zelenka’s music has continued to grow since the 1950s and his works have become much more widely known and recorded since then. It is wonderful to see Tafelmusik presenting Zelenka in live performance, making this a don’t-miss concert that will illuminate, inform, and inspire anyone with an interest in early music.

Musical Women Who Persisted

Here’s a challenge for you: name five female composers of Western art music from the years 1100 to 1900. If you came up empty, the Toronto Chamber Choir has just the concert for you on May 24: A Voice of Her Own – Musical Women Who Persisted focuses on female composers and their works from the last nine centuries, enhanced with a multimedia presentation to both elucidate and entertain. With music by Hildegard of Bingen, Maddalena Casulana, Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and more, there will be much to learn about the various stereotypes, societal constructs, and utter indifference that prevented the free expression of creativity among female composers. Featuring conductor Lucas Harris, organist Stephanie Martin and narrator Katherine Larson, this performance will not only be musically excellent, but also edifying for those who take the time to make themselves aware of what life was like for the female creatives of the past and, perhaps, the present as well.

Stephanie MartinSpeaking of female composers, Stephanie Martin is a musician who wears many hats: composer; conductor; organist and teacher and a fixture of Toronto’s musical scene. In addition to the Toronto Chamber Choir, Martin also makes an appearance with I Furiosi Baroque Ensemble this May 17 as composer of I Furiosi: The Opera, a pastiche Baroque opera with music by Handel, Purcell and Martin, and libretto by Craig Martin. What can we expect from an I Furiosi opera? You’ll have to see it to find out!

Drop me a line if you have any questions on what’s happening this month, or want some more info on why Zelenka might be the best composer you’ve never heard of: 


MAY 4, 8PM: Toronto Consort. “Night Games.” Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, 427 Bloor Street West. With so much early music being obsessed with religious propriety, it’s nice to let your wig down once in a while. Check out this irreverent evening of madrigal comedy with the Toronto Consort and triple-threat director/actor/dancer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière.

MAY 5, 3PM: Windermere String Quartet. “Alpha and Omega.” St. Olave’s Anglican Church, 360 Windermere Avenue. Hear three quartets by the masters of the genre: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – the pinnacles of Viennese quartet writing – and rediscover how ingenious these composers can be with only four instruments… no orchestra required!

JUN 2, 3PM: Rosewood Consort.Love, Loss, and Passion: A Musical Tour of Renaissance Europe.” Grace Lutheran Church, 1107 Main Street W., Hamilton. Take a trip down the QEW and take in stunning music by des Prez, Willaert, Palestrina, and more, pinnacles of the 16th-century polyphonists.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Art cannot exist in a vacuum, independent, immune, and untouched by the innumerable facets and fluctuations of the world, for all art is created at a specific time and in a specific place. The artist, without exception, exists in a society with its own concerns, issues and goals, and it is these chronic yet changing problems that play a large part in the creation of new works. Whether due to war, famine, personal poverty, or forced relocation, each piece of music that we perform or listen to has its own context and purpose. We must wonder if much of the art that we now consider great would have been created at all, had it not been for the struggles that come with living in such an imperfect world.

Perhaps the most poignant and radical example of this social-artistic reactivity was in the 20th century, when the abominations and mass destruction of World War II necessitated the creation of a new aesthetic to reflect the forever-changed and irreparably damaged global community. Artists of all types were forced to flee their respective countries and seek refuge elsewhere, many coming to North America to escape the dangers of the European continent. Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Hindemith are only a few of the significant composers who relocated to the United States, a career move that, far from being planned, was forced by external factors.

While some musicians went less far afield, choosing to flee their homelands in favour of another European state, others involved themselves in the defense of their country by picking up arms, sometimes with tragic results. Jehan Alain, the French organist and composer, was killed in battle, and Olivier Messiaen was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner of war. Messiaen wrote his Quatuor pour la fin du temps while in German captivity and it was first performed by his fellow prisoners; it has come to be recognized as one of his most important works.

The deconstruction of music’s essential components through serialism was a significant and reactive measure to the postwar world, a highly ordered approach to composition that served as a juxtaposition to external chaos and is one of the most recognized movements of the postwar musical aesthetic. Renowned serial composer and conductor Pierre Boulez was perhaps the most outspoken advocate of music as a social and political vehicle, giving such memorable quotes as, “I assert that any musician who has not experienced – I do not say understood, but, in all exactness, experienced – the necessity for the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch … All the art of the past must be destroyed.” For artists who witnessed the destruction of their national histories and cultures with their own eyes, such sentiments likely seemed far less radical than they now appear.

Although the discussion of serialism might seem strikingly modern within the context of an early music column, the sociopolitical catastrophes that precipitated serialism’s formation are not at all new. The Thirty Years’ War, for example, lasted from 1618 to 1648 and was one of the most destructive conflicts in human history resulting in eight million fatalities, not only from military engagements but also from violence, famine and plague. Conflict between the Catholics and Protestants created an unstable social environment, which resulted in a myriad of responses from composers and performers, including Heinrich Schütz. As Kapellmeister to the Elector of Saxony, Schütz had to provide music not only for standard liturgical ceremonies but also for special occasions, which was complicated by reduced performing forces as the war progressed. In fact, members of his church ensemble dropped one by one so that from 1632 to 1639 the number of members diminished by 29 people. Other composers were forced to flee the violence and disease or lost their positions as courts were eliminated or relocated, events that were to repeat themselves three centuries later as Europe’s nations once again took up arms against each other.

Dido and Belinda

Although the current political climate is far less devastating than in either the early 17th or 20th centuries, contemporary issues continue to affect the way we perform and perceive art. By changing the lens through which we view it, old music can be reinvented and presented in a new way. One method of doing so is through de-contextualization, reapplying an ancient work to tell a new and immediately relevant story. On May 4 and 5, Cor Unum Ensemble attempts to do just this in their collaboration with OperaQ, focusing on Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, re-labelled and reworked as Dido and Belinda. According to Cor Unum’s press release, “Dido and Belinda offers a new perspective on Purcell’s beloved opera, Dido and Aeneas. With the addition of narration from the point of view of Dido’s closest confidante, Belinda, this staged production will emphasize many of the themes already found in the original libretto: the shame surrounding feminine sexuality, the blindness of male privilege and the societal pressure to conform to gender roles.”

Ryan McDonald 3An additional circumvention of tradition includes the casting of reversed-gender roles, with this performance featuring countertenor Ryan McDonald as Dido, Camille Rogers as Aeneas and Rebecca Genge as Belinda. While this may seem like a radical departure from Purcell’s original intention and scoring, this novel interpretation should maintain the integrity of the musical score as well as increasing its dramatic poignancy through a contemporary reimagining.

Purcell Reimagined

Before Cor Unum and OperaQ combine to tackle Dido, Purcell’s music gets reconstructed by Confluence on April 5 and 6. “‘Tis Nature’s Voice: Henry Purcell Reimagined” features arrangements of vocal works by Purcell performed by an extended roster including Anne Atkinson, Larry Beckwith, Andrew Downing, Drew Jurecka, John Millard, Patricia O’Callaghan, Gregory Oh, Alex Samaras and Suba Sankaran. The most renowned arrangements of Purcell’s vocal music were done by Benjamin Britten, whose deliberately pianistic realizations of figured bass launch this harpsichord-based 17th-century music into the piano-focused 20th century. For this concert, however, Confluence associates Patricia O’Callaghan and Andrew Downing bring together some of Toronto’s finest composer-musicians to rearrange and perform the music of Henry Purcell. It will be most interesting to hear their perspectives on Purcell’s songs, which run from the simple to the sublime and everything in between.

Marco Cera. Photo credit Sian Richards PhotographyStrangers in Strange Lands

Renowned for both their musical finesse and social awareness through novel multimedia presentations, Tafelmusik goes small-scale on April 10 with Strangers in Strange Lands, part of their Close Encounters chamber series. Presented in smaller venues across the city, these concerts are a wonderful opportunity to get an up-close look at the performers that make Tafelmusik the ensemble it is; this session features Marco Cera, Julia Wedman, Patrick G. Jordan, Allen Whear and Charlotte Nediger as they explore music in the galant style.

julia wedmanThe galant style was short-lived, bridging the Baroque era with the classical, but it nonetheless featured some fine musicians and their works: C.P.E. and J.C. Bach, Quantz, Hasse, Sammartini, Tartini, Alberti and early Mozart are all exemplars of galant style, which simplified the contrapuntal density of the Baroque and introduced more melody-driven features. Even Haydn was influenced by this melody-based movement, reportedly commenting, “If you want to know whether a melody is really beautiful, sing it without accompaniment.” With such fine musicians performing such delightful repertoire, beautiful melodies will undoubtedly abound, both with accompaniment and without!

No matter how charming or innocuous a piece of music may seem, there is inevitably a story behind it. Whether written during or because of war, as a lifeline during a period of personal financial hardship, or as part of an application for a position or promotion, it is remiss of us to extract our art from its historical context. While it may be overly idealistic to apply to all works, the hearing of certain pieces such as Britten’s War Requiem, Penderecki’s Threnody or Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi can serve as reminders of historical and personal landmarks. It is also possible, as we see this month, to adapt and reinterpret old music in new ways, increasing its relevance to the modern audience member.

Regardless of whether you prefer old music or new, I encourage you to listen with open ears and an informed mind. Get in touch if you have any questions or want some more context on what’s happening this month:


APR 6, 8PM: Scaramella presents “Red Priest” at Victoria College Chapel, 91 Charles St. W. Despite being one of Italy’s greatest Baroque composers, Antonio Vivaldi’s vocal music is still underperformed. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear a selection of his mini-masterpiece chamber cantatas featuring countertenor Daniel Cabena.

APR 27, 8PM: Rezonance Baroque Ensemble presents “Harpsichord Explosion” at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, 361 Danforth Ave. Two words: Harpsichord. Explosion. Have you ever seen a harpsichord explode? Neither have I.

MAY 4, 7:30PM: Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts presents “Baroque and Beyond: Bach and His World.” 390 King Street West, Kingston. Conceived, scripted and programmed by Alison Mackay, this multimedia presentation is sure to entertain and inform, and features works by one of the greatest musical minds in history.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Bach plays the organThe Baroque era was a time of international cultural exchange and groundbreaking creativity. Composers from across Europe brought music from the last vestiges of Renaissance modality to the systematic hierarchy of tones and semitones as defined by functional harmony. If there is one composer whose name is synonymous with the Baroque era and its developments, it is most likely Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was an inherently paradoxical figure, practical yet prickly, pious yet prideful, conservative yet radically progressive, a musical visionary with one foot in the past. We need look no further than the B-Minor Mass to see Bach’s equal comfort in the old modal style and a new, highly chromatic tonal system, evident in the contrast between the Credo fugue, based on cantus-firmus models of earlier times, and the comparatively shocking Crucifixus. The latter is an extended exploration of semitone relationships and enharmonic modulation masquerading as a ground-bass chaconne, using harmonic techniques that would not become frequently and fluently exercised until almost a century later.

The reasons for Bach’s powerful presence in the Western music canon are too many to number; the sheer intensity of his skill has captivated generations of composers, students and performers, from Mozart and Beethoven to Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler. This impact on those who followed him, coupled with Bach’s ability to blend the cerebral with the spiritual in a way unsurpassed by his peers or successors, has led to Bach’s place in the musical cosmos being like a musical black hole, on a scale perhaps only equalled by Beethoven, dividing all of musical history into before and after. All that came before led to this apotheosis of ingenuity; all that comes after is a successor, related in some way to this progenitor of revolutionized compositional ability. (A recent online post describing Handel as “a more religious Bach,” a premier example of musicological perfidy if there ever was one!)

Defence of Bach’s placement among the greats in the pantheon of musical history, is superfluous and unnecessary. The preceding paragraphs simply attempt to illustrate just how significant the contributions of this one composer are. To look at Bach’s music from another perspective, we can ask ourselves why Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations is one of the bestselling Classical albums of all time. (Before this recording, after all, the Goldbergs were considered museum pieces, old stuck-up essays in variation form that were unworthy of public performance.) The answer, most likely, is that, in the hands of someone who truly understands its intricacies and is able to express them, Bach’s music is the ideal repertoire to perform, challenging the interpreter and the listener and creating an atmosphere that borders on the sublime. No two live performances of the same work are ever identical, but this is all the more so with Bach, whose music is conducive to elastic and creative interpretations; a performer can adopt and adapt, making them endlessly subjective – and thereby communicative – experiences for an audience.

Masaaki SuzukiTafelmusik’s Matthäus-Passion

In case this extended preamble wasn’t a sufficiently obvious lead-in, March is full of Bach’s music, performed across Southern Ontario by a variety of ensembles. On March 21 to 24 in Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Tafelmusik presents a much-anticipated performance of the Matthäus-Passion (St Matthew Passion), led by Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki. Suzuki is a Japanese organist, harpsichordist and conductor, and the founder and musical director of the Bach Collegium Japan, with which he is recording the complete choral works of Johann Sebastian Bach. To give a brief overview of Suzuki’s output to date, Bach Collegium Japan completed their 55-volume series of Bach’s church cantatas in 2013, the secular cantatas in 2018, as well as all of Bach’s Lutheran Masses, motets, and large choral works. Suzuki is also recording Bach’s concertos, orchestral suites and solo works for harpsichord and organ, as well as guest conducting with ensembles around the globe.

The St. Matthew Passion is a monumental work for vocal soloists, two choirs, and two orchestras, and Bach’s largest single piece of music, running almost three hours in an average performance. Containing some of Bach’s most beautiful and exquisitely crafted material, the St Matthew Passion was first performed on Good Friday 1727 at the St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) in Leipzig. One of the challenges of performing this work involves the distribution of forces within the performing space; how does one ensure that the division of the large choir and orchestra into two distinct parts is clear and apparent, particularly in such essentially antiphonal movements as the opening “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen”?

In Bach’s time St. Thomas Church had two organ lofts: the large organ loft that was used throughout the year for musicians performing in Sunday services, and the small organ loft, situated at the opposite side of the sanctuary, that was used additionally in the grand services for Christmas and Easter. The St. Matthew Passion was composed so that a single work could be performed from both organ lofts at the same time: Chorus and orchestra I would occupy the large organ loft, and Chorus and orchestra II performed from the small organ loft. In a space lacking these vehicles for spatial separation, it will be fascinating to see how the dynamism of Bach’s score is realized onstage in this don’t-miss performance of Tafelmusik’s 40th-anniversary season.

OCO’s Brandenburgs

A short drive away in Oakville, the Oakville Chamber Orchestra celebrates their 35th anniversary with a complete performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Regarded as some of the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque era, this collection of six instrumental works was presented by Bach to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721. While Bach took the opportunity to revise the concerti before presenting the scores to the margrave, each copied in his own hand rather than by a copyist, the material itself was likely not freshly composed, but rather selected from concertos he had composed over a number of years while at Köthen, and possibly extending back to his employment at Weimar.

After their gifting to the margrave, the Brandenburgs had a rather unfortunate history: because King Frederick William I of Prussia was not a significant patron of the arts, Christian Ludwig lacked the musicians in his Berlin ensemble to perform the concertos. The full score was left unused in the Margrave’s library until his death in 1734, when it was sold. The autograph manuscript of the concertos was only rediscovered in the archives of Brandenburg in 1849 and published in the following year. While Bach undoubtedly led performances of the original movements as Kapellmeister at Köthen, he never heard a performance of the Brandenburg Concertos as we now know them.

Fortunately, such opportunities are not lost on the modern concertgoer, though it is a rare treat to be able to hear all six works in one performance. Each concerto has a unique character and body of soloists, the fifth concerto perhaps the most renowned for its extraordinary harpsichord part. (It seems very likely that Bach, considered a great organ and harpsichord virtuoso, was the harpsichord soloist at the premiere of an earlier version in Köthen). Modern interpretations of these pieces range from one-to-a-part chamber ensembles of period instruments to pared-down symphony orchestras on modern instruments; regardless of the forces involved, these masterpieces are essential listening for fans of early music and worth exploring by anyone who appreciates Bach’s instrumental works.

 Rezonance Baroque EnsembleRezonance’s Bach Tradition

Known now as a brilliant composer of vocal and instrumental works, Bach was more renowned in his time as an improviser, keyboard virtuoso and organ consultant. (Whenever he tried a new organ, Bach’s practice was to start off by playing with all the stops pulled out, with every rank of pipes sounding at once. In this way, he said, he could see what kind of “lungs” an instrument had.) Bach famously displayed his skill at extemporization in front of King Frederick II of Prussia at Potsdam in May 1747, when the king played a theme for Bach and challenged him to improvise a fugue based on his theme. Bach obliged, playing a three-part fugue on one of Frederick’s fortepianos, before reworking the King’s theme into the Musical Offering.

On April 6, Rezonance Baroque Ensemble and Musicians on the Edge explore Bach’s improvisatory skill through their concert “The Bach Family and the Improvising Tradition” at Metropolitan United Church. The Bach family was an imposingly gifted family, producing generations of musicians of the highest calibre, and it will undoubtedly be a compelling experience as the audience is introduced to the largely lost art of extemporization. There may even be a fugue or two, made up on the spot!

While this month’s column is devoted to one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music, there are many other great composers represented within the pages of this magazine who you are encouraged to explore. As we slowly thaw after another Canadian winter and the days grow longer, it is the perfect time to get outside, go to concerts, and see what the world looks like underneath all that snow and ice! In the meantime, contact me with any questions or comments at


MAR 9, 7:30 PM: Theatre of Early Music. Israel in Egypt. St. Patrick’s Church, 131 McCaul Street. Not only was Handel born in 1685, the same year as Bach – he wrote some pretty good tunes too! Don’t miss this extraordinary oratorio full of dramatic story and magnificent music.

MAR 17, 4PM: Hart House Singers. “Handel and Mozart.” Great Hall, Hart House, 7 Hart House Circle. Two of music’s great dramatic composers come together for a concert featuring Handel’s extraordinary Zadok The Priest and Mozart’s Vespers. (Yes, Mozart has connections to Bach as well.)

MAR 27, 7:30 PM: Julliard415. “Baroque and Beyond: Bach and Vivaldi.” Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, 390 King Street West, Kingston. Violinist Rachel Podger and the Juilliard415 Baroque ensemble visit Canada to perform works by two masters of chamber music. (Bach was quite familiar with Vivaldi’s output and even transcribed a number of concerti for the organ.) Ideal music for an absolutely stellar concert hall.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

History’s pruning shears are aggressively pragmatic, trimming away that which is not tremendously noteworthy, revolutionary, famous or infamous. Music history is no kinder to its members, the pantheon of perpetual fame reserved for those select few on whom we bestow the title of “genius.” In the movie Amadeus, which, by the way, is screening with live orchestra at the Sony Centre February 21 and 22, court composer Antonio Salieri “speak[s] for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.” He fully expects to be expunged from the record books because of his lack of prodigious talent, surpassed in every way by the young and inexplicably, divinely gifted Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Almost as well-known as Amadeus itself is the understanding that (spoiler alert!) the vast majority of the drama in the film is entirely fictitious. Salieri did, in fact, achieve great success during his career, not only dominating Italian-language Viennese opera, but also becoming one of the most important and sought-after teachers of his generation, with such pupils as Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, and Ludwig van Beethoven… not too bad for the “patron saint of mediocrities.” But while this particular instance of historical pruning may be false, there are many other examples of how time can act as an eraser, gradually wiping away traces of people, places, and events.

Let us consider, for example, the idea of national “schools” of music, which ebb and flow depending on the time period and corresponding socio-political circumstances of each country. Throughout the history of music there are three countries which consistently contributed to the development of European music from the medieval era to the 20th century: Germany, France and Italy; these nations produced some of the great composers of the past, including Bach and Beethoven, Couperin and Debussy, and Vivaldi and Puccini, respectively, as well as virtuoso interpreters. England has made valid contributions throughout history as well, particularly in the Renaissance and Baroque, with the Tudors and later composers such as Purcell, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through Parry, Elgar, Howells, Britten and others.

Europe, however, is an expansive continent and currently contains 50 separate countries – what are the musical histories of these other nations, the ones that have not received the legacies of Mozarts and Salieris? Who are their “patron saints of mediocrities”? This month’s listings are full of explorations of these lesser-known composers and their works; here are some of the highlights:

Poland in the 16th Century

On February 21, Gallery 345 presents harpsichordist Corina Marti, playing keyboard music from 16th-century Poland. Poland’s influence on classical music cannot be underestimated, with world-famous composers such as Frédéric Chopin, Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki, Karol Szymanowski and Henryk Górecki, and renowned pianists like Arthur Rubinstein, Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Krystian Zimerman counted amongst its artistic elite. While these composers and performers are largely from the 19th and 20th centuries, Poland has had a national musical identity since the 13th century, from which manuscripts have been found containing polyphonic compositions related to the Parisian Notre Dame School. During the 16th century, two musical ensembles led a rapid development in Polish music – both were based in Kraków and belonged to the King and Archbishop of Wawel. Music does not exist in a vacuum, however, and a number of Italian musicians were guests at the royal courts in the early 17th century, included Luca Marenzio, Giovanni Francesco Anerio, and Marco Scacchi. During the 17th century, Polish composers from this period focused on Baroque religious music and concertos for voices, instruments and basso continuo, a tradition that continued into the 18th century.

This concert is certainly worth exploring, in part because it provides more questions than answers: what will this Renaissance-era music from Eastern Europe sound like? Will it resemble the Tudor school and the pavanes and galliards of Byrd and Gibbons, or perhaps the more fantastical style of Frescobaldi? There is only one way to find out!


Another country that has not received significant recognition for its musical contributions is Spain where, particularly in the renaissance, creativity and experimentation abounded. The Toronto Chamber Choir delves into repertoire from mediaeval and renaissance Spain with their concert “Convivencia: Music Across Three Faiths” on March 2. Featuring Sephardic folk songs, classical Arabic melodies, and Spanish polyphony, this performance captures the cross-pollination that took place in a country with an unusually rich and complex musical and political history.

Over the course of its history, Spain has had more than 2,000 years of internal and external influences and developments that have combined to produce a large number of unique musical traditions, closely related to changing political climates. In the two centuries before the Christian era, Roman rule brought with it the music and ideas of Ancient Greece. Early Christians, who had their own differing versions of church music, arrived during the height of the Roman Empire, while the Visigoths, a Romanized Germanic people, took control of the peninsula following the fall of the Roman Empire. The rule of Moors and Jews in the Middle Ages added another influence to the musical climate, and the style of Spanish popular songs of the time is presumed to have been heavily influenced by the music of the Moors.

By the early 16th century, the polyphonic vocal style that developed in Spain was closely related to that of the Franco-Flemish composers. Composers from the North of Europe visited Spain, and native Spaniards travelled within the Holy Roman Empire, which extended to the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. Tomás Luis de Victoria, for example, spent a significant portion of his career in Rome, developing a technique that was said to have reached a level of polyphonic perfection and expressive intensity equal, or even superior, to Palestrina and Lassus.

By blending Sephardic, Arabic and Spanish musics, the Toronto Chamber Choir’s Convivencia will provide an artistic reflection of the real-world exchanges that took place between the world’s three great monotheistic religions in a country whose history is punctuated by fascinating and wide-reaching influences. Featuring Lucas Harris as conductor and lutenist, as well as guest singers, guitars, oud, ney and percussion, this concert is ideal for those who wish to broaden their knowledge of classical music and get a big-picture look at what influenced the music we hear and perform today.

Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig Damascus Coffee HouseTales of Two Cities

While on the topic of big-picture performances, Tafelmusik will remount their successful multimedia production “Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House” from February 21 to 24. Conceived, scripted and programmed by Alison Mackay, this musical exploration of the links between 18th-century Saxony and Syria became one of the most talked-about projects in Tafelmusik’s history when it was first seen in 2016. Celebrating the rich musical traditions of East and West, and the renewed dialogue between those traditions in contemporary, multicultural Toronto, Tales blurs musical boundaries and alters our perspectives on musical history.

In terms of artistry, this concert brings an all-star roster to the Koerner Hall stage, featuring the Tafelmusik orchestra led by Elisa Citterio and Opera Atelier’s Marshall Pynkoski as stage director. The Tafelmusik team will be joined on stage by Maryem Tollar, vocalist and co-narrator, Alon Nashman, co-narrator, Naghmeh Farahmand, percussion, and Demetri Petsalakis, oud. In case you missed it in 2016, the musical selections are stellar, and include canonic works by Bach, Handel, Telemann and more, as well as traditional Arabic song and klezmer fiddle music.

If last year’s Safe Haven was your first exposure to Mackay’s multimedia prowess, don’t miss this opportunity to see Tales which is sure to impress, both through the superb skill of the performers and the surprising, captivating connections drawn between the “then” of centuries ago and our very present “now.”

While this month’s concerts might be slightly more outside the box than usual with regards to programming and presentation, the opportunity for cross-cultural exploration is one that shouldn’t be missed. At a time of xenophobic mania, and as the drawing of lines between “us and them” becomes increasingly aggressive, these performances provide an essential and contextual reminder that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Have questions about these or any other early music concerts in this month’s WholeNote? Get in touch at 


FEB 3, 2PM: Rezonance Baroque Ensemble. “Italian Celebration.” St. Barnabas Anglican Church, 361 Danforth Ave. Old and new come together as folk music and compositions by Neapolitan Baroque composers are performed alongside works by Toronto composer Romina di Gasbarro.

FEB 15, 8PM: St. Basil’s Church, University of St. Michael’s College. “Litanies de la Vièrge.” St. Basil’s Church, 50 St. Joseph St. Glorious music from the pinnacle of the French Baroque, with choir and organ music by Charpentier, de Grigny and Couperin.

FEB 16, 7:30PM: St. George’s Cathedral. “Te Deum Laudamus.” St. George’s Cathedral, 270 King St. E, Kingston. A survey of music from England and anthems from the 17th to 20th centuries, including Handel’s Te Deum in D and Stanford’s stunning Te Deum in B-flat.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

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