Every so often, one classical musician or another will mention, by way of discussing career options, that younger emerging musicians should consider moving to Korea, China or Japan if they want a shot at a playing career. Having never even seen the Hellespont, let alone ventured east of it, I really have no idea what to make of this. I have very little if any knowledge of the classical music scene over there, and still less of an idea what their early music scene looks like. Still, the armchair career counsellors have a point. Asia does appear to be a fast-growing market for classical music. Asian retailers will stock and sell a vast inventory of classical music, including some of the most obscure recordings that would go completely unnoticed here. And, moreover, their demand for live music appears equally insatiable – Tokyo, for example, has six (six!) symphony orchestras.
It’s a little disappointing, then, that this passion for Western music doesn’t seem to extend to the early music movement. While there’s much to give Canadian and American musicians cause for optimism as far as an emerging market is concerned, East Asia does seem to be a good half century behind the times, as far as historically inspired performance is concerned.
Bach Collegium: The shining exception to this, of course is the Bach Collegium Japan. Founded by harpsichordist Masaaki Suzuki in 1990, seemingly with the single purpose of recording Bach’s entire catalogue, the Collegium is an awe-inspiring group that boasts a roster of some of the finest baroque players, both in Japan and on the international scene. The Collegium is one of just a handful of ensembles in the world that has recorded the complete cantatas of J.S. Bach and it has distinguished itself as the most renowned Japanese classical ensemble in the world.
Besides committing Bach’s entire symphonic repertoire to disc, their 99-disc output includes a recording of the Monteverdi Vespers, a Mozart Requiem, a Messiah, a recording of Bach’s contemporary Buxtehude and (why not?) an album of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony arranged by Richard Wagner. They are prolific, they are experienced and they are without a doubt some of the most exceptional musicians in any category worldwide. But don’t take my word for it – you can decide for yourself when the group comes to Koerner Hall on October 28 at 8pm for (what else?) an all-Bach program. They’ll be playing some standard repertoire like Brandenburg 5 and the trio sonata from the Musical Offering, but the concert will also include some lesser-known hits of the Bach catalogue like the Concerto for Oboe d’amore BWV1055R and the soprano cantata Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut BWV199. I have no doubt that this will be a fantastic performance by an internationally renowned ensemble and a rare chance to hear some of the finest musicians in the world live in concert.
Ensemble Les Songes is another out-of-town group visiting Toronto this month that’s well worth hearing, although their concert will likely be a quieter affair than the arrival of a visiting Japanese orchestra. The Montreal-based quintet features soprano Samantha Louis-Jean, harpsichordist Mélisande McNabney, and recorder wunderkind Vincent Lauzer, but all five are talented musicians who can be counted on to deliver a spirited and intelligent performance. They’ll be playing a free concert of love songs by Corelli, Scarlatti and Handel at the Four Seasons Centre on October 6 at noon.
Early Music Fair: The other great event next month is of course the annual Early Music Fair, organized by the Toronto Early Music Centre. The annual fair is a day that allows visitors to sample the early music scene in Toronto and the GTA, and which features presentations by instrument makers and specialists, scores for sale and an introduction to the world of historic keyboards, string and wind instruments. It’s usually held at Montgomery’s Inn in Etobicoke, but this year the organizers have opted for a more downtown venue at Fort York on October 17, running from 11am to 4pm. You’ll have a chance to hear several musical ensembles over the course of the day, but one group that you might want to make a point of catching is Capella Intima, an a cappella vocal ensemble that will be singing English madrigals and partsongs in the Blue Barracks at 1pm and 1:30pm. The group is made up of just four singers who are doing an accessible repertoire and a short program, so if you’re at all curious about early choral music, check them out, catch some of the presentations and enjoy a day at historic Fort York.
I get a kick from Champlain: October 2015 also marks an important milestone in the history of Ontario, as it is the 400th anniversary of the first recorded visit to Ontario by European explorers. Samuel de Champlain, having already made a name for himself as the founder of New France, not only became the first European to visit Ontario 400 years ago, but also took the time to visit and map the Great Lakes, befriend the Wendat (Huron) tribes, and pass through what is now Peterborough and Lake Simcoe in September and October 1615. The fact that he went on to attempt an invasion of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tribes and failed miserably in the process is perhaps less celebrated by Ontario or Quebec historians. But I digress.
In an unabashedly Eurocentric version of history, Ontario turns 400 this month, and the Aradia ensemble will be performing a concert of French music at the Alliance Française to commemorate it. Aradia is one of the best Toronto-based ensembles for French repertoire, so it’s sure to be a very fine performance. The composers they’ve selected aren’t likely to have ever been heard by Champlain himself (most of them were either infants or had yet to be born when the great explorer died) but historical accuracy must sometimes be sacrificed for the sake of good music, and Jean-Baptiste Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier most definitely qualify. You can catch Aradia, along with soprano Katherine Hill and narrator Patrice Dutil on November 1 at 7pm.
Lassus’ oddest work: History often inspires great music, but the Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus can lay claim to the singular honour of having the weirdest historical theme for a composition, ever. His 13-movement Prophetiae Sibyllarum, with its notoriously chromatic prologue, purports to be based on predictions made by oracles from ancient Greece to the Roman empire that prophesied the birth of Jesus. On October 30 at 8pm in St. Basil’s Church, the Musicians in Ordinary will perform Lassus’ oddest work as part of their concert series as the artists in residence at Saint Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. It’s a concert I’m looking forward to, and it promises to be very interesting from both a musical and a historical perspective, although Lassus’ claim to oracular divinity begs at least a few questions. Why would a group of Bronze Age polytheists predict the son of a single god? Why would a Roman emperor care about the beliefs of a tiny religious minority in a faraway provincial backwater? Why were Renaissance humanists so preoccupied with rehabilitating the religious beliefs of antiquity? Fortunately, if you show up for the pre-concert talk at 7:30, you’ll get the answer to all of these questions, and hopefully the lecturer will lay them safely to rest.
David Podgorski is a Toronto-based harpsichordist, music teacher and a founding member of Rezonance. He can be contacted at email@example.com.