Discussing early music is similar to discussing winter in Canada, particularly here in Toronto. We know where each is supposed to begin and end: early music covers everything from the Medieval era to the end of the Baroque, widely considered to be 1750 (the year of J.S. Bach’s death); winter begins with the winter solstice near the end of December and lasts until the spring equinox in March. This year, though, Toronto was treated to an intense April ice storm, causing almost 1,500 car accidents over a single weekend, wreaking havoc on property, and instilling regret in those who switched over their vehicle’s winter tires too soon. The Farmer’s Almanac may have told us one thing, but as we well know, real life scenarios rarely match our neat-and-tidy theoretical assumptions.

When attempting to categorize early music, we encounter many of the same practical and theoretical conflicts we face when discussing the weather. As time moves forward, formerly avant-garde composers such as Cage, Messiaen and Berio become part of music’s history, relics from the past century, while the greats of long ago, including Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, move even further into the distant past. When this happens, we realize that this inevitable progression of time pushes composers and their works further and further back in history, thereby blurring our outdated and neatly conceived 19th- and 20th-century categorizations of classical music’s epochs.

The continually expanding exploration and development of performance practice in music mirrors this passing of time. The Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement, for example, was started 60-or-so years ago, when Leonhardt, Rilling and Harnoncourt began recording the complete Bach cantatas, and has since grown to encompass Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and even Mahler. As what we consider contemporary continues to move ahead and composers continue to utilize technology and digital media as compositional techniques to be included along with live performers, we look back at the music of the past through a constantly-changing lens.

Is this to say that we should consistently take the pruning shears to Western music, judiciously weeding out repertoire that no longer serves a purpose or that seems too old or outdated? Probably not – we wouldn’t want to cause a riot, after all, by acknowledging the inherent clunkiness of some of Beethoven’s compositions or the influence of Leopold Mozart on young Mozart’s symphonies and concerti, or echo Pierre Boulez’s critiques of Schoenberg’s structural schizophrenia. Instead, we should look at music as a whole, do away with our naïve categorizations and acknowledge the ancient nature of this music and its place in history.

By taking a large-scale look at individual repertoire in its historical context – as a progression of musical lineage and development that bridges the enormous gulf between the beginning of medieval staff notation and monophony to the monstrous complexity of Ferneyhough and Finnissy, ultimately ending up with the products of today’s composers – we see that everything is connected. If we acknowledge the innate interconnectedness between Schütz and Scelsi, Fasch and Ferneyhough, we can throw away the idea of narrow-minded specialization in music and increase our own awareness of the greatness of all musics, and then pass on this awareness to our audiences. As Robert Heinlein writes: “specialization is for insects.”

Toronto Bach Festival

The month of May provides many interesting opportunities to see presenters straddle the lines more frequently, offering concerts of music taken from different eras and showing the progression of musical history over time, whether in shorter segments or over large, epoch-spanning periods. The third annual Toronto Bach Festival, which takes place from May 11 to 13, explores Bach’s influences, the musical figures from the Renaissance and early Baroque that combined and incubated to result in one of classical music’s primary figures. Featuring three concerts and a lecture by professor Michael Marissen, this year’s Bach Festival, curated by artistic director (and Tafelmusik oboist) John Abberger, focuses on the music of Bach and Heinrich Schütz, regarded as the most important German composer before Bach and an influence on later composers such as Brahms and Webern. The opening concert includes Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos No.2 and 4, Concerto for Oboe d’amore and Orchestral Suite No.4, with Abberger (as oboist and director), Baroque violinist Julia Wedman, and natural horn player Scott Wevers among the orchestra’s 14 players.

Toronto Bach Festival artistic director John AbbergerBritish composer Brian Eno recently spoke of our contemporary cult of genius, stating that “although great new ideas are usually articulated by individuals, they’re nearly always generated by communities.” Through performances of Bach’s orchestral music, including two Brandenburg Concerti, Schütz’s stunning Johannes Passion and an organ recital by Rachel Mahon featuring works by Dieterich Buxtehude, this year’s Toronto Bach Festival will paint a large-scale picture of Bach in relation to his peers and predecessors, an engaging portrait that removes Bach from his isolated, elevated pedestal of genius and contextualizes his works within his musical community.

21C Music Festival

Continuing the theme of multi-era concerts, The Royal Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival presents pianist Simone Dinnerstein with chamber orchestra A Far Cry, in what looks to be a magnificent juxtaposition of the complex counterpoint of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in G Minor with the deceptively simple minimalism of Philip Glass’s Piano Concerto No. 3. While Bach uses counterpoint to create an overall effect greater than the sum of the parts, Glass’ counterpoint sounds less complex than it actually is, with characteristically repetitive themes and gradually evolving, large-scale processes combining to create works that bring to mind Michael Caine’s quote on the duck: calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.

Lest one say that Glass’ music is “light” or “superficial,” it is helpful to remember that Glass received the same intensive training as many of his compositional contemporaries, even studying for two years with Nadia Boulanger, the legendary French pedagogue. Glass’ music, particularly his large-scale works, contains moments of distinct compositional ingenuity, thematic developments sharing similarities with the age-old fugue, and ideas that are combined, contrasted and displayed in virtuosic versatility. This ingenuity correlates perfectly with Bach’s own ideas on counterpoint, and this unexpected combination of old and new works not only provides a vehicle for virtuosity that spans the centuries, but also contains a consistent set of underlying principles, albeit within distinctly different soundscapes.

Tafelmusik plays Beethoven

Tafelmusik’s Beethoven collaborations with conductor Bruno Weil, culminating in a recently-released set of the complete symphonies, expand the repertoire conventionally assumed as suitable for a Baroque orchestra. This May, the Tafel/Weil duo reunites to perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral” and his magnificent Violin Concerto, with Jeanne Lamon as concertmaster and Elisa Citterio as soloist. Many are familiar with Romantic interpretations of this symphony – think Furtwängler and later – rife with pictorial depictions of rolling hills, birdsong and the inevitable storm. By performing this work on period instruments – thereby reducing the kaleidoscopic range of expression typically available on modern instruments – the characteristically caricatured interpretation we have come to expect may be tempered somewhat. It will be worthwhile to hear this work in the context of its time, rather than as a scene-painting predecessor to Wagnerian drama!

There are many other fantastic concerts happening in the early music world this month, too many to

mention here, and I hope that you’ll do some exploring, both in this magazine and in the Toronto arts scene as a whole. With the last blast of winter hopefully behind us, take some time this spring to get outside and take in some music. Not only will you be able to walk around in something other than a parka and boots, you will also have the opportunity to hear marvellous music from all eras performed by some of the city’s most talented artists.

I hope to see you at some of this month’s musical events. As always, feel free to get in touch at earlymusic@thewholenote.com

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

The act of musical transcription has existed as long as notation has, used over the past millennium to facilitate artistic cross-pollination and the exchange of ideas across international borders. Utilized in centuries past as equal parts pedagogical tool, musical tribute and vehicle for musical propagation, transcriptions exist from some of music’s greatest figures, including Johann Sebastian Bach.

Historically, transcribing involves some element of copying, whether for pedagogy, plagiarism, or practicality, such as copying performing parts from a full score, a task for which Bach received much help, often from his wife and children. It is often from these copies that a work is passed down through centuries. According to the late-18th-century German musicologist Johann Rochlitz, even the Thomaskirche did not possess the full score for Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn, but only the vocal parts which were preserved “as if they were a saint’s relics.”

Bach’s use of transcriptions extends throughout his lifetime, from his student days copying forbidden scores by candlelight to his organ tablature transcriptions of music by Reincken and Buxtehude, as well as his transcriptions for organ of Vivaldi concerti and his own Schübler Chorale Preludes. In fact, a well-documented theory postulates that Bach’s most famous organ work, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, wasn’t written for organ at all, but was an organ transcription of an earlier work for violin.

In its modern conventional use, the term transcription refers to two similar but distinct actions: notating a piece or a sound which was previously unwritten, such as Bartók’s folk song transcriptions or Messiaen’s notations of birdsong; and rewriting a piece of music, either solo or ensemble, for another instrument or other instruments than those for which it was originally intended, including Liszt’s piano versions of the Beethoven symphonies.

Transcription in the latter sense is often conflated with arrangement. In theory, transcriptions are faithful adaptations, whereas arrangements change significant aspects of the original piece. In practice, though, there are many works which fit equally well into either category. Consider, for example, Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Mahler’s re-orchestrations of Beethoven and Schumann symphonies. There is an equal amount of faithful adaptation and significant change in each of these examples, which ride the line between transcription and arrangement.

The act of transcribing is, at first glance, an uncomplicated one – nothing needs to be changed in a work’s notes or rhythms – the piece simply needs to be re-notated for a different instrument. It is in this adaptation, however, that the art and craft of the transcriber is made apparent, for each instrument contains its own idiosyncrasies, technical challenges and limitations, particularly if the music being transcribed and the instrument being transcribed for have their origins centuries apart – Hildegard von Bingen for saxophone and theremin, for example!

Better by the Dozen

One of the relatively recent instruments for which old music is regularly arranged is the modern classical guitar, designed in the 19th century after earlier classical models. Although not in existence during Bach’s time, a great deal of J.S. Bach’s music has been transcribed for the modern guitar, including preludes, fugues, sonatas, partitas, cello and orchestral suites, as well as lute, keyboard and ensemble music by other Baroque composers. One of the most interesting facets of these arrangements is the constant accommodation and adaptation being made by the transcriber and performer, particularly in fugues, where it is nearly impossible for all three or four voices to be as distinctly present on a guitar as they would be on a keyboard. This adjustment creates another arranging/transcribing hybrid, for Bach’s original counterpoint must be compromised to be played, often resulting in a work that is familiar yet new when heard in performance.

While many of us are acquainted with the classical guitar, April brings a supersized surprise to fans of the instrument. On April 15, the Quebec-based ensemble Forestare makes their Toronto debut in Mooredale Concerts’ 2017/18 season finale. What makes this program unusually interesting is the instrumental makeup of Forestare, consisting of 12 guitars and two basses. According to their media release, “Since its 2002 inception, Forestare has participated in the creation of 50 original works and adapted nearly another 100 for its unique configuration – as a result creating the largest repertoire for guitar orchestra in the world.”

ForestareFor their April Toronto debut, Forestare’s program is comprised entirely of arrangements made by David Pilon (also Forestare’s conductor), David Ratelle and Jürg Kindle, taken from their Baroque album. Works including Lully’s Le bourgeouis gentilhomme, Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata (La folia) and numerous works by Bach, including Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, ensure a mixture of familiar earworms and less-familiar discoveries. This concert presents a rare and unique opportunity to experience something that is, for many of us, entirely new: well-known works transcribed for an extraordinary and novel combination of instruments.

Looking Ahead

Scaramella, April 7: In addition to the new and exciting debut of the Forestare guitar orchestra, Toronto hosts a number of other worthwhile early music events this month, including Scaramella’s “Boccherini and Friends,” a survey of Boccherini’s music in the context of his contemporaries, on April 7. With works by Boccherini, Michael Haydn (brother of Franz Josef), Leopold Mozart (father of Wolfgang) and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, this dip into the late 18th century features those who were lost in the transition between the Baroque and Classical periods, as popular tastes shifted and changed, and many worthwhile and successful composers faded into premature obscurity. According to the late-18th-century author Jean-Baptiste Cartier, “If God wanted to speak to men through music, He would do it with the works of Haydn, but if He wanted to listen to music, He would choose Boccherini.” But don’t take Cartier’s word for it – check out this concert and decide for yourself.

Music @ Met, April 22: Last month’s issue of The WholeNote featured an interview with Dr. Patricia Wright, Metropolitan United Church’s Minister of Music. In her interview Dr. Wright explained that for decades Metropolitan United has hosted a successful and ongoing series of concerts, recently rebranded as the Music at Metropolitan (Music @ Met) program. The next performance in the Music @ Met calendar features Musicians on the Edge and Rezonance Baroque Ensemble in “Mystery of the Unfinished Concerto” on April 22. With music by Corelli, Vivaldi and others, as well as new compositions created on the spot, this presentation continues Rezonance’s exploration of partimenti and Baroque improvisational technique, in both the context of written and unwritten music.

Cantemus, May 5 and 6: Looking ahead to early May, Cantemus Singers present what should be a sublime concert of works from the early Tudor period on May 5 and 6. Although written in social, political, and religious conditions that were decidedly less than ideal, the music produced by such composers as Tallis, Sheppard and Mundy overcame the limitations of their time and began the progression towards what is now considered the English Cathedral style of music. With a rich historical background full of fascinating tales and anecdotes, this performance is ideal for fans of Renaissance music and history buffs alike.

As winter departs, the days grow longer, and the mercury rises, take advantage of a beautiful spring evening or two and explore a concert. If nothing in this month’s column strikes an interest, explore this magazine for hundreds more shows, recitals and presentations – all happening within the area – and find the music that’s right for you. Your feedback is always welcome: send me a note at earlymusic@thewholenote.com or say “Hi” in person; either way, don’t let April showers keep you indoors.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Auditions are terrifying experiences for any musician. An important job, an academic scholarship, the future of one’s career, any and all of these can depend on a few nerve-wracking moments in front of a jury or audition panel. Johann Sebastian Bach was no stranger to auditions, applying for a number of positions, titles and designations throughout his career, in constant pursuit of the next level of 18th-century professional development.

In 1733, at the age of 48, Bach sought a court title from Friedrich August II, the newly appointed Elector of Saxony, by presenting a Kyrie and Gloria, submitted as a “trifling product” and gift to the Elector. These two movements constitute the opening of what would become the Mass in B Minor, a monumental (and decidedly Catholic) essay in the Latin rite. A fascinating piece of auto-plagiarism and self-adaptation, the Mass was completed by Bach reusing a Sanctus from the Christmas of 1724 with only minor adjustments and drawing much of the material for the Gloria and Credo from existing works, including a cantata or two. Despite the incredible beauty, complexity and ingenuity displayed throughout its hundreds of pages, there are no records of a performance from Bach’s lifetime and it is assumed that he died before hearing the Mass in B Minor in its entirety.

Bach’s Mass, much like Beethoven’s equally majestic and complex Missa Solemnis, is far too long for any practical liturgical use, but we are fortunate that it is performed in concert relatively often, somewhere between the frequency of the St. John Passion and the rarity of the St. Matthew Passion. We are even more fortunate this month as there are three large Bach-themed performances in March, two of which feature the Mass in B Minor.

Bach... in B Minor and Beyond

The first performance of the Mass in B Minor takes place at the end of March at Metropolitan United Church on Good Friday. A longtime annual tradition featuring the Metropolitan Festival Choir and Orchestra, this is a modern-scale performance featuring a relatively large chorus and modern-instrument ensemble, led by Dr. Patricia Wright. Bach’s music, loaded with Affekt, expressive gestures and profound spirituality, provides an ideal musical backdrop for Good Friday, solemn yet hopeful, with hints of the joy to come on Easter Day.

Dorothee Mields - photo by Harald HoffmannTafelmusik’s orchestra and chorus focus their attention on Bach’s Mass in B Minor just a week later, April 7, approaching the work with their trademark historically informed outlook. Led by Ivars Taurins and featuring a stellar lineup of soloists including soprano Dorothee Mields, mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell, tenor Charles Daniels and baritone Tyler Duncan, this performance will, as Tafelmusik writes on their website, “captivate your heart and soul from the very opening notes of the Kyrie to the majestic close of the Dona nobis pacem.” Tafelmusik’s previous Mass in B Minor was my first concerted introduction to the beauty of Bach’s choral music, and it remains one of my favourite and most emotionally moving live musical experiences.

The third Bach performance taking place this month is not religious in theme, is unrelated to Lent and Easter and does not involve orchestra or chorus. On March 11 in Mazzoleni Hall, pianist and harpsichordist David Louie presents Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a two-volume collection of preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys that rivals the Mass in B Minor in monumentality, creativity and ingenuity. Louie will play the first set on a two-manual harpsichord designed and modelled after an instrument built by the French harpsichord and piano maker Pascal Taskin (1723-1793).

Taskin’s instruments are fine examples of the French school of harpsichord building, featuring a wide range, well-distributed pitch divisions (two eight-foot ranks and a four-foot rank) and a warm and rich tone well-suited for the contrapuntal complexity of late Baroque repertoire, both German (Bach’s partitas, suites and fugues, for example) and French (the masterpieces of Rameau, Couperin and Lully). Not only worthwhile for the repertoire being performed, Louie’s use of a period-inspired instrument will illuminate Bach’s contrapuntal genius in a different light than we hear on a piano, while showcasing Louie’s own technical facility on an instrument with its own unique demands and limitations.

David Louie at the harpsichord.

Eine Kleine Lentmusik

The season of Lent, commonly associated with ashes, sackcloth and penitential abstinence (“What are you giving up for Lent this year?”) abounds with music that, although appropriately dark and dour, is nonetheless beautiful and worth hearing. Here are some notable performances taking place this month:

On March 3 the Toronto Chamber Choir presents “Bach’s Foundations,” with works by Johannes Bach, Johann Christian Bach and Johann Michael Bach. Focusing on musically influential members of J.S. Bach’s extended family, this concert will be a fascinating look at the people and pedigree responsible for producing one of music’s greatest minds. I look forward to hearing the similarities and differences in their works and listening for the influence of their great precursor, around whom the entire Bach galaxy revolves.

Cor Unum Ensemble, one of Toronto’s up-and-coming Baroque ensembles, presents Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on March 10 and 11. The text of the Stabat Mater is a popular one – a Catholic prayer to the grieving mother of Christ as she witnesses her son carrying his cross to Calvary – set throughout the centuries by composers including Rheinberger, Dvořák and Rossini. Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater takes the form of a duet for soprano and alto with obbligato instruments, a simple and straightforward setting relative to the massively Romantic settings penned by later composers (which can also be inappropriately cheeky and jovial – I’m looking at you, Rossini…). In addition to music by Pergolesi, Cor Unum will also perform Bach’s Cantata 170 “Vergnügte Ruh” for solo alto and a suite by Lully. Taking place in the visually appealing and acoustically superior Trinity College Chapel, this concert is definitely worth exploring.

March is shaping up to be the Month of Bach, both directly and by association! On March 24 the Musicians in Ordinary and St. Michael’s Schola Cantorum present Dieterich Buxtehude’s Jesu Membra Nostri, a set of cantatas focusing on the varied corporal sufferings experienced by Christ over the course of his trial and crucifixion. Buxtehude was a significant influence on J.S. Bach, the young protege travelling hundreds of miles to Lübeck to study the master’s organ music. (By foot, the story in Bach’s obituary goes, though John Eliot Gardiner finds this a bit melodramatic, likening it to an old man “padding his resume,” recounting stories of his youth after a pint or two.) Buxtehude and the North German style of organ playing was indeed influential on the young Bach and provided a model for his early organ works, particularly from the Weimar years. Buxtehude’s Jesu Membra Nostri cantatas are written in an older style and often incorporate modal writing with hints of a conventional tonal system, a style quite similar to the stile antico moments found in the Credo and Gloria of Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Lent and Easter are extraordinarily rich musical seasons and this year’s concert calendar is an embarrassment of riches. Not only are there numerous performances of some of Bach’s finest works but also explorations of Bach’s familial and national musical influences, as well as a Bach cantata presented by the exciting and fresh Cor Unum Ensemble. If Bach’s insurmountable genius and erudite musicality is not your personal preference however, check out this magazine for other concerts and events taking place and support Toronto’s vibrant arts scene – there’s something out there for everyone! 

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Reading a survey of “The History of Classical Music” is an experience similar to reading the Toronto Transit Commission subway map. Broken down into its basic elements, our subterranean transit system is a series of independent and direct lines with clear paths and destinations that intersect at a relatively small number of major junctions. These junctions are occasionally chaotic (think Bloor Station at 8:30am, with an obligatory delay or two) and often confusing, with the uninitiated and unfamiliar wondering just how to get from that yellow line to that green line without being trampled by a stampeding horde of commuters.

Our conventional understanding of the history of classical music is, much like our system of underground transport, often considered in linear terms – take the Yonge line to Bloor, Bloor line to Bathurst – directional, but reading more like the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren… or, Buxtehude begat J.S. Bach; and J.S. Bach begat C.P.E. Bach; and C.P.E. Bach begat Mozart... These linear streams of music history intersect, like our Bloor and Yonge lines, relatively rarely (once every 150 years or so) often landmarked by a creative supernova: the masterworks of J.S. Bach; the creation and subsequent development of sonata form by Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; the operas of Wagner; the invention of Schoenberg’s dodecaphony. These are the junctions which, we are told, changed the course of history and introduced the world to the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and modern eras, respectively.

Nothing, however, is as simple as it seems. Once we reach the surface and take a bird’s-eye view of these systems, we find that they are infinitely more complex and intertwined than we initially thought. Anyone who has been redirected out of Toronto’s subways (Line One is closed from Lawrence to Bloor this weekend) and forced to take shuttle buses, streetcars, or any other form of surface transportation, immediately realizes, in addition to the linear and direct lines which run underneath the city, there is an entire network of surface routing which connects our city in much more complex, thorough and occasionally hard-to-navigate ways. This is what real-life music history looks like, the apparently direct connections and creative supernovae actually consisting of myriad local and international interactions, increasing in fascinating complexity until our historical concept of “begotten-ness” is replaced by the understanding that everything is connected in one way or another

Once these connections are drawn and acknowledged, we see that it is no longer possible to parcel the history of classical music into comfortable categorizations. National musical schools, for example – Lully the Frenchman, Purcell the Englishman, Monteverdi the Italian, Bach the German – are no longer satisfactory criteria, for we often see that the country of one’s birth is significantly different from the country (or countries) responsible for one’s artistic development and inspiration. With a little bit of insight, broad categorizations, scholastically practical and academically satisfying though they are, are replaced by fascinating tales of professional musicians who worked, travelled, learned and borrowed from other countries and cultures, preserved and passed down through both musical and historical artifacts, such as Bach’s transcriptions of works by Vivaldi or the documented success of composers such as Zelenka and Heinichen, Bohemian composers who thrived within the courts of Dresden.

It is from this perspective that music, particularly the music of the Baroque, comes to life, the world of 17th-century Europe drawing from within itself to produce works of unbelievable creativity and breadth while simultaneously echoing a sentiment written by the Sherman brothers for Walt Disney 250 years later: “It’s a small world after all!”

Continental Contacts

This February is a wonderful month for fans of Baroque music – with the passing of December’s overwhelming musical offerings, the start of a new year gives ensembles time to rehearse, prepare and produce new and exciting programs. There’s something for everyone this month, but remember: whether you prefer your music with a touch of French grace, Italian joviality, German complexity, or English propriety, it’s all connected!

Rezonance: Last year Toronto’s newly-formed Rezonance Baroque Ensemble presented a fascinating concert which put the spotlight on partimenti, the study of improvisation in the Baroque era, drawing parallels between modern jazz and 17th-century classical music. The group is back on stage February 3 with “Versailles Confidential,” a multidisciplinary presentation featuring actress Ariana Marquis as the Marquise de Sévigné. With music by some of the French Baroque’s most esteemed composers including Rebel, D’Anglebert, Couperin and Jean-Baptiste Lully, official court composer of Louis XIV, this performance should be a delightful exploration of life in Baroque France.

Melos: For those further east in Ontario, Melos Choir and Period Instruments ensemble performs in Kingston on February 9. Their concert, “A Venetian Carnevale,” puts the spotlight on period vocal and instrumental music, theatre and dance from the time of Carnevale celebrations of Baroque Europe. Featured composers include Gabrieli, Lassus and Telemann, a musical kaleidoscope coloured by some fascinating bits of history. The Gabrielis were a dominant musical force in Venice and bridged the transition period between Renaissance and Baroque eras. Giovanni Gabrieli studied with Orlando di Lasso (Lassus) in Munich and subsequently taught the German composers Hans Leo Hassler and Heinrich Schütz, who brought Gabrieli’s works to Germany and ultimately influenced the music of later composers such as Bach and Telemann. An innovator of the highest calibre, Gabrieli is attributed with being the first to use specified dynamics (forte, piano, etc.) in his compositions, as well as introducing the concept of instrumentation!

Thomas Hobbs. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega.Alexander’s Feast: George Frederic Handel is another composer whose influence on later generations of composers cannot be understated, his oratorios and operas crafting a path for the development of an entire genre of dramatic expression. Handel was an international artist himself, German by birth but writing enormously successful works in English such as Messiah, and Italian operas including Giulio Caesare. This month (February 22 to 25), Tafelmusik’s orchestra and chorus unite to perform Handel’s Alexander’s Feast, or The Power of Music with soprano soloist Amanda Forsythe, tenor Thomas Hobbs and baritone Alexander Dobson. In addition to his concert appearances, Hobbs will host a masterclass on February 24 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, where he will work with advanced students and professional musicians on Baroque vocal repertoire as part of Tafelmusik’s Guest Artist Masterclass Series. Masterclasses are fine opportunities for the public to see how much care, attention and preparation it takes to put together even the smallest amount of musical material at a professional level, a rarely seen peek behind the curtain.

St. Matthew: The works of Johann Sebastian Bach are, perhaps, the pinnacle of an individual’s internal musical synthesis, the product of an encyclopedic knowledge of musical styles coupled with a tremendous intellect and prodigious propensity for high-quality compositional output. One of Bach’s most immense, profound, and legendary masterpieces is his St. Matthew Passion, which will be performed by Chorus Niagara and the Talisker Players on March 3 in St. Catharines. If we look beyond the staggering creativity displayed within this work, it is, furthermore, incredible to think that Bach wrote such a staggering piece to be played within the context of a church service, surrounded by all the additional elements of Lutheran liturgical ritual (including a proper Protestant sermon)!

QUICK PICKS: Choir and Organ Music from Canada and Beyond

While on the topic of church music, there are two concerts taking place this month that focus on music written by legendary church musicians, one highlighting works by Healey Willan, the “Dean of Canadian Composers,” the other the inimitable organ music of J.S. Bach:

Matthew Larkin in recital on the Casavant organ in St. Matthias Anglican Church, Ottawa. Photo by Judith van Berkom.On February 16 at 8pm, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene hosts “Willan 50,” a concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Willan’s death. With the combined forces of St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene and organists Matthew Larkin, Simon Walker and Andrew Adair, this is bound to be a heartfelt, musical and moving tribute to one of Canada’s most renowned and influential compositional characters who considered himself “English by birth; Canadian by adoption; Irish by extraction; Scotch by absorption.”

Two days later, on February 18 at 4:30pm, fans of Bach’s organ music will be treated to an appearance by British organist David Briggs at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Belleville. Briggs, former artist-in-residence at St. James Cathedral in Toronto and a renowned performer and improviser, will play Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G BWV541, Pièce d’orgue BWV572, Passacaglia BWV582 and more, as well as an improvisation. If you missed the chance to hear Briggs in concert as part of the “Splendours of Notre Dame” concert at St. James Cathedral last month, take advantage of this opportunity; he is a delightfully skillful player!

As always, I encourage you to explore the full range of listings in this issue of The WholeNote – in addition to these few highlights, there are a great many fine concerts and events taking place in our city this month! Your feedback is always welcome, either in person or, if you prefer to spend the month of February in solitary hibernation, emerging only when the trees are budding, send me a note at
earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

This sentence notwithstanding, I try not to use too many personal pronouns when writing. Call it a parasympathetic reflex from my student days writing prosaic, academically sourced theses, but words like “I” and “my” seem too personal and isolating to use even in a communal column and publication such as The WholeNote; and I don’t write editorials (although I do express the occasional opinion or two!). This month is an exception, however, for we begin our two-month survey of the Toronto early music scene with two personal anecdotes – disparate occurrences that, although entirely independent in time and place, share a common, relevant and important theme.

A few weeks ago, I gave a recital at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. The program for this little concert contained a blend of jazz, minimalist and avant-garde music, including György Ligeti’s Harmonies for organ. After the performance one audience member approached and asked, “Why bother with such music? You could have played that piece (Harmonies) forwards or backwards and we wouldn’t have known the difference!” It was ultimately a worthwhile question and one that many performers face, particularly in the realm of music written in the 20th century and onwards: why bother playing music that people won’t understand, music that is not necessarily tuneful, pretty, or accessible to the masses?

Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent Van Goh in 'Loving Vincent' - Courtesy of Mongrel MediaDays after my recital experience, I saw the new film Loving Vincent, an artistically oriented speculative recreation of the last days of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, incorporating elements of documentary and murder mystery. This film was screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox and is notable because of the way it was made. Each frame – 65,000 of them altogether – was hand-painted in the style of Van Gogh by an international team of artists, then photographed and digitized using animation software, thereby creating a literal motion picture. Before viewing Loving Vincent, I read a synopsis in The Guardian in which the reviewer questioned the painstaking process of producing the film, arguing that an equally visually satisfying production could have been generated using purely digital means without the trouble of hand-painting anything at all. In our digital age, the review queried, why bother with all the unnecessarily painstaking manual labour?

In early music circles, the question “Why bother?” is a relevant one, too. When we look at the frequency with which certain individual works are performed, there are inevitably moments where we question the rationale behind established conventions that have become normalized. For example, now that December is here, why bother playing Handel’s Messiah again across the city – haven’t we been up to our eyeballs in it every year for the past decade? Why bother with another performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio or Corelli’s Christmas Concerto? Reprising these works year after year seems to be the bad end of a Faustian pact, the lure of a full auditorium paid off with the ceaseless repetition of the same stuff, taxing our ears with all-too familiar strains of “Hallelujah!,” “Jauchzet, frohlocket!” or some other predictable and overdone work – a festive and wintry Groundhog Day, if you will.

These are thought-provoking queries, many of which are difficult to answer. The questions of “Why?” and “Why bother?” will always be applicable to the arts, particularly when something new and unfamiliar (in the case of Ligeti’s Harmonies) or unusual and idiosyncratic (as we see in Loving Vincent) is put on display, but another little anecdote recounted to me by a former teacher may help answer why we always seem to return to the time-tested Baroque classics in December:

Once a conductor was in a dress rehearsal of Messiah – everyone involved had performed the work many times. One singer was rather lackadaisical about his part and seemed lazy and lacklustre throughout, irking the conductor enough that he confronted him about it afterwards.

“Listen,” the conductor said, “I know you have sung this many times, as I’ve conducted it many times, but you have a great responsibility as a performer. Tonight’s concert may be the first time that someone in that audience hears Messiah. And this performance may also be the last Messiah someone in that audience hears.”

My Grown-Up Christmas List

For many, Messiah is as much a quintessential seasonal favourite as mulled wine and a ten-pound fruitcake. With dozens of performers presenting various Messianic adaptations and interpretations across Toronto and its surrounding areas, it can be a tricky task to pick only one! Fortunately, The WholeNote is here to help: read my recent blog post on notable performances, or search for the word “Messiah” in our online listings to get a list of most of this year’s shows. Whether full-length or condensed, HIP or modern, symphonic or sing-along, we have the Messiah for you.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is another classic Christmas composition from the Baroque era, compiled and composed between 1733 and 1734 to celebrate the Christmas season in Leipzig. Although catalogued as BWV248 and now considered a single, freestanding work, this “oratorio” is in actuality a series of six individual cantatas that were performed during the time between Christmas and Epiphany (what we now call the Twelve Days of Christmas) and divided between the Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche, Leipzig’s two main churches.

Monumental in scope and brilliant in its musical expression of Bach’s beliefs and theology, the Christmas Oratorio is, along with the Passions, the closest Bach came to writing a narrative opera. Geoffrey Butler and the Toronto Choral Society perform the Christmas Oratorio at Koerner Hall on December 6, in what promises to be a welcome respite from the hurly-burly of the commercially overloaded Christmas season.

Continuing their trend of melding old and new, the Toronto Masque Theatre presents their seasonal salon “Peace on Earth” on December 17 and 18. Featuring the performance of baroque Noëls and the Messe de Minuit by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, these Franco-flavoured evenings will explore the simplicity, beauty and joy of the French Baroque Christmas, different in many ways from the immense and intricate forms we find in English and German oratorio.

To complement these French Baroque favourites, TMT also leaps forward into the 20th century with excerpts from The Birth of Christ, a cantata written in 1901 by Canadian composer Clarence Lucas (1866-1947) as well as seasonal readings by from T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi. With this medley of music and word on display only one week before Christmas, these performances will surely banish the last “Bah humbug!” from even the Scroogiest of curmudgeonly misers.

But Wait, There’s More! A Taste of 2018

Fast forward to January 2018: Belts are loosened an extra notch (or two); turkey leftovers, eggnog and rum hangovers, and the last few sweet treats all linger longer than expected. New Year’s resolutions are resolutely made and broken, and we start looking ahead to the inevitable wintry weather that is to come. If we somehow ignore the temptation to snuggle up with a cup of cocoa and hibernate until March, there are many exciting events taking place across Toronto in January, including two promising projects by Tafelmusik (who might quite reasonably go into hibernation themselves after their busy December!).

The first is the Tafelmusik Winter Institute, a terrific opportunity for those with a passion for Historically Informed Performance. A one-week intensive for advanced students and young professionals, this year’s TWI culminates in a free public performance at Jeanne Lamon Hall on January 10. Featuring music by French composers Lully, Campra, Marais and Rameau, and this performance presents a rare opportunity to hear top-notch music from the height of the French tradition for an unbeatable price.

Over the last few years, Tafelmusik has pushed the boundaries of the early music concert experience with Alison Mackay’s creative multimedia conceptions and collaborations. This positive trend towards HIP-infused modernism continues with Safe Haven, a program exploring the musical ideas of Baroque Europe’s refugee artists, drawing parallels between 18th-century Europe and present-day Canada. At that time of year when the Christmas chestnuts have come and gone, this concert looks to provide a palate-cleansing leap forward in a genre that occasionally seems to specialize in blasé repetition.

Joëlle Morton Scaramella: While Tafelmusik peers into the future with Safe Haven, period performance group Scaramella looks back in time with their “Ode to Music” on January 27. Featuring Scaramella’s Joëlle Morton and guest virtuoso viol players Elizabeth Rumsey and Caroline Ritchie from Basel, Switzerland, this program uses a variety of 16th-century music for viol consort to explore the impact of the muses on Renaissance composers. This concert provides a wonderful opportunity for viol enthusiasts and novices alike to acquaint themselves with the spectrum of sound these antiquated instruments can produce, living musical relics linking our ears to past centuries.

As winter-themed advertising flashes across our smartphone screens and store windows are redecorated with miniaturized villages and resplendent hues of red, green and gold, it can be overwhelming and daunting to find time to attend a concert; despite the seasonal hustle and bustle, I encourage you to explore the vibrant musical offerings that are on display this December and January. Whether you prefer Handel’s Messiah, Tafelmusik’s Safe Haven, a traditional Festival of Lessons and Carols, or any of the other listings in this double issue of The WholeNote, the richness and depth of Toronto’s classical music scene ensures that no concertgoer ever has to ask, “Why bother?”

Happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus and New Year, everyone. See you in February! Until then, keep in touch at
earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

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