Still from Tafelmusik’s Il Seicento, February 18. L-R: Keiran Campbell (cello), Pippa Macmillan (violone), Lucas Harris (theorbo and guitar), Brandon Chui (viola), Elisa Citterio (violin), Patricia Ahern (violin) and Christopher Bagan (harpsichord and organ).In December 2020, nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario was placed under lockdown for a second time, further limiting the already restrictive measures taken to control the spread of this virus. With firm (though somewhat inconsistent) restrictions making large-scale concert performances all but impossible, arts organizations across the city faced a demanding creative challenge—one that required equally creative responses.

On February 18, 2021, Toronto-based early music presenter Tafelmusik released Il Seicento, a virtual concert recorded at Jeanne Lamon Hall, featuring innovative music by trendsetting Italian composers from the 1600s. The concert title, “Il Seicento,” is a term that refers specifically to Italian history and culture during the 17th century, marking the end of the Renaissance movement in Italy and the beginning of the Counter-Reformation and the Baroque era. While many of these names will be unfamiliar to all but connoisseurs, a few, such as Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger and Domenico Gabrielli, are recognizable as significant figures who straddled the Renaissance and Baroque eras, ushering in the new Baroque style and paving a way for the later generation, which included such household names as Corelli and Vivaldi.

Described by Tafelmusik music director Elisa Citterio as “a contrast between light and dark” inspired by the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio’s paintings, Il Seicento strives to bring light into a world that is currently shrouded in darkness, and it is strikingly successful in this regard. Indeed, with over a dozen individual works on the program, there are too many sublime moments to describe in such a brief review, but a few particularly remarkable instances deserve special mention.

The first selection in the concert, Maurizio Cazzati’s 1659 Capriccio sopra sette note, is so cheery and pleasant in its almost-obsessive repetition of the seven-note ground bass that it is both a pure delight to listen to and an impressive display of the individual and soloistic virtuosity of the performers. In contrast to Cazzati’s ebullience, Biagio Marini’s Passacalio à 4 is a stately and solemn exploration of the ground bass form, providing a beauty that, although different from the Capriccio, is no less satisfying.

Giovanni Maria Trabaci’s Gagliarda terza is a fascinating work, and perhaps most clearly outlines the shifting musical styles taking place in Italy in the early 17th century. Written in 1603, we hear a galliard, a form of Renaissance dance and music popular all over Europe in the 16th century, but with an increasingly complex harmonic and melodic lexicon that looks forward rather than backwards.

Still from Tafelmusik’s Il Seicento, February 18: violinists Elisa Citterio (L) and Patricia Ahern.Taking in a virtual concert, whether on a cell phone, computer screen, or high-definition television, is a fundamentally different experience than attending a live concert. The use of cameras fixes our gaze, forcing us to look in a particular place at a particular time, and, for better or for worse, altering our perception of the performance. In the case of Il Seicento, the cameras take us on a guided tour of the ensemble, showcasing players at times when they emerge from the group, engage in dialogues, or enter after an extended rest, mirroring the scanning that an in-person audience member might do, led by their ears. This helpful method of videography enhances what we hear, because of how effectively it works with the music itself, rather than being purely decorative. (Worse is the single wide-angle shot often seen on concert videos that lasts the duration of the performance, which typically results in an ensemble of ant-sized individuals!)

With less than a year of exploration and experimentation to draw from, Tafelmusik is demonstrating that they are not only able to survive but thrive in this new and unexpected virtual environment. Il Seicento would be a terrific concert experience regardless of forum or venue, and the virtual format does not hinder its presentation. With such high-quality audio and video, it gives everyone the opportunity to have a front-row seat, even to walk amongst the performers themselves, and not be constricted by a far-away or obstructed view. Il Seicento provided much, both musically and technologically, to marvel at—and I encourage you to visit the Tafelmusik website to explore the other winter concert offerings they have in store.

Tafelmusik presented Il Seicento online, on February 18, 2021 at 8pm.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Video still from Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah, 2020.

I still remember my first Messiah: seated in the rather uncomfortable pews at St. Paul’s Basilica in Toronto, gazing up at the church’s ceiling instead of following along with the text in the program, and only drifting back into attentiveness for “All we like sheep have gone astray,” the lyrics of which I found most amusing at age eight. My appreciation for long-form classical music and my attention span have both, thankfully, matured since then, such that I can more properly enjoy and be challenged by a work such as Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah: a lively, free-spirited adaptation of Handel’s oratorio, performed with unbounded joy and more than a few electronics.

The Toronto-based music group Soundstreams usually produces Electric Messiah as a cabaret-style event at the Drake Underground, bringing together a vocal quartet with instrumentalists both classical and modern to rethink the melodies of Handel’s original. This year, Electric Messiah has moved online, taking the form of an hour-long music video paying homage not only to Handel’s timeless work, but also to the city of Toronto and its own artists. The YouTube premiere on Thursday, December 17 was no lagging live-streamed event: Electric Messiah is a highly-polished affair, a delight to both eye and ear, and available for multiple rewatches until the end of December 2020. 

Read more: Concert Report: Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah continues to reimagine a classic

Kaie Jason 1 bannerScreenshot of UBGNLSWRE, with Kaie Kellough (L) and Jason Sharp (R).This year’s X Avant festival at the Music Gallery, now in its 15th year, was of a different sort. Stretched over three weeks, and by necessity entirely streamed online, this year’s edition was curated by Music Gallery Artistic Associates Pratishtha Kohli and Olivia Shortt. It explored the theme of Transmissions—how artistic knowledge and creative vision are passed along to the audience and from one generation to the next. On October 15, the Aga Khan Museum, in collaboration with X Avant, presented the online release of music/spoken word/poetry duo Kaie Kellough and Jason Sharp's new work UBGNLSWRE, recorded on-site in the museum space. 

Sharp is a saxophonist, composer and electronic artist, while Kellough brings his work in the literary world as a poet and fiction writer into his collaboration with Sharp. The third voice in the collaboration was Kevin Yuen Kit Lo, who created visual projections by combining different typesettings of words and phrases from Kellough’s text with a wide assortment of images.

The text appeared as various words and phrases that were broken-up and reshaped in a vast array of different fonts, colours and sizes. In a pre-concert online interview with the Music Gallery's David Dacks, Kellough stated that these projections can be read or not read and can be seen as a way to broaden the conversation.

Read more: Concert report: With UBGNLSWRE, the Aga Khan Museum and Music Gallery capture the present moment

Jonathan Crow (violin) and Joseph Johnson (cello) perform for a physically-distanced audience at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Image c/o TSO.The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has mastered the now-ubiquitous virtual program, hosting Facebook Live recitals and “Watch Parties” of archived performance videos – check out #TSOatHome – while the doors of Roy Thomson Hall remain bolted shut. This September, however, the TSO announced several in-person concerts held in alternative venues, beginning with AGO Live: Hello From The Other Side, part of a series of relaxed afternoon shows hosted by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to bring live musicians into the gallery space.

On September 25, museum-goers trickled into the AGO’s spacious Walker Court and carefully sat or stood in front of TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow and principal cellist Joseph Johnson, who kicked off the season with a program of six short duets. The surprise repertoire was eclectic and fresh, the execution highly energetic. Though this was billed as an informal concert, the players – like two champion racehorses bursting out of the gates – channelled a startling intensity that made for a swift and exciting performance.

The masked duo opened with Mozart’s Sonata in C Major (K46d), transcribed from the original piano version, exchanging lightly teasing melodies with crisp and sparkling articulation. This cheerful dialogue was sustained in the Sonata for Violin and Cello in D Major by 18th-century Italian-born cellist Boccherini (arr. Paul Bazelaire), whose excellent second movement, Vivace, played like a bristling argument between old friends. After six months of listening to tinny audio recordings, it was sheer relief to hear Crow and Johnson’s warm, generous tones fill the furthest corners of the sterile white court.

Things took a moodier turn with four selections from Eight Pieces for Violin and Cello by Reinhold Glière (1875-1956), a Soviet composer known for his Romantic sensibility. The frenzied, bee-swarmed Étude was an impressive technical feat, but the wonderful final movement, Scherzo, a complex piece in triple metre, brought a sinister edge to the form’s playful precedents with unpredictable melodic pivots. Glière builds near-cinematic suspense with a rich vocabulary of dark sounds that Crow suggested were inspired by the Russian language itself; perhaps some lockdown angst helped the players electrify this beguiling composition.

Glière was thrown into relief by a hopeful composition entitled The Current (And Those Who Ride It), a 2017 work by violinist and University of Toronto alum Alice Hong. The piece began mysteriously, a tentative violin line skating softly over the cello, which murmured beneath like a quick-flowing brook; eventually the violin grew bright and earnest, both it and the cello striving to catch the melody.

The performance culminated in the exciting Passacaglia for Violin and Cello, reworked by Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) using themes from Handel’s Suite no. 7 in G Minor for harpsichord. A firework of a piece, the players exchanged fierce dotted rhythms accented by spectacular dynamics and trills. We were sent off with the much gentler Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, another work written for harpsichord whose pure, even tones formed a soothing denouement.

Though I couldn’t read their expressions, Crow and Johnson seemed to be having a blast, relishing the ability to perform after six months of living room practice. After a short break they ran through it all again, encouraging those who attended the first time to listen while exploring the European galleries nearby. What was lost in clarity was supplanted by other magical qualities – with some distance, the violin’s quickest notes began to flow together like tinkling wind chimes, and for a moment the museum became a well-stocked palace.

But trying to appreciate visual art and classical music at once is not as simple as it might seem. When listening to a piece like Glière’s Étude, already full of vivid imagery, it becomes difficult to focus on paintings with a strong narrative subject; the two works compete for attention and ultimately something is lost from both. On the other hand, music can add intrigue to a quieter painting whose meaning is less clear cut. In The Avon Gorge with Clifton and the Hotwells, for instance, a muted watercolour landscape by Francis Danby, the notes of Boccherini seemed to animate the tiny pointing figure in foreground, stirring up some tension in an otherwise sedate composition.

If this concert is anything to go by, the AGO Live series is set to be a thrilling one, and not just for its novelty. Without having to worry about ticket sales, the performers can select more daring repertoire, digging up offbeat and lesser-known duets. I would recommend any classical music lover take advantage of this perhaps rare opportunity to hear some of Canada’s best musicians up close (but not too close), while surrounded by one of the largest collections of visual art in Canada.

AGO Live: Hello From The Other Side, free with timed-entry museum admission, runs on Friday afternoons through January. See https://ago.ca/ago-live/hello-from-the-other-side for the complete schedule.

Jane Coombs is a writer based in Toronto. She recently graduated from Cambridge and the Courtauld Institute.

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