LEIPZIG--Leipzig likes to think of itself as the city of music and with Johann Sebastian Bach having been one of its citizens for the last decades of his life, the annual June Bach Festival (Bachfest) becomes a natural high point of celebration.

This year it also became a high point of celebration for Tafelmusik, when the Toronto period-instrument orchestra was honoured by an invitation to be ensemble-in-residence, performing in the June 13 opening concert in St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) as well as two more in the other principal church of Bach´s day, the St. Nicholas (Nikolaikirche).

Since 2014 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Bach´s second eldest son, Tafelmusik, like many other performers in the ten-day, 100-plus event program, has embraced music by Carl Phillip Emanuel, including, in the opening concert, a Magnificat new to the players and so full of harmonic variety and melodic invention that it easily stood comparison with his father´s great D Major Magnificat, daringly programmed in the same concert.


It's a rare pleasure to hear Jean-Philippe Rameau played in North America, even though most music played today owes the man a heavier debt than is typically acknowledged. Rameau was a contemporary of J. S. Bach who began his career as a harpsichord virtuoso, composing three books of solo keyboard music, and his compositions for solo harpsichord rank as some of the most difficult and the most rewarding music composed for the instrument. Mid-career, Rameau became a music theorist and, along with Bach, an advocate of equal temperament. Rameau is probably most remembered today for his discovery that tonal music is made up of chord changes rather than intervals between notes, a tenet of music that still remains with us and is a guiding principle of classical, jazz and rock.

It's somewhat curious then, that after considerable success in two separate fields of music, he turned to writing opera at the age of 50, and stranger still that he would continue to do so after his first opera courted controversy and a fairly frosty critical reception.

The reasons some of the French public hated Rameau's operas hardly matter now. His first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie was performed over 130 times during the composer's lifetime, proving once again that there is really no point in listening to critics. But it was certainly a pleasure to hear Voicebox's Opera in Concert series reviving Hippolyte for Toronto audiences Sunday afternoon at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, in a staged production with the help of Toronto's Aradia Ensemble. Despite the fact that it was Super Bowl Sunday, Voicebox managed to draw an audience of over a hundred listeners. Clearly there are a few people in Toronto who either appreciate Rameau's status as the father of modern music or are aware that opera is less tedious, and involves less standing around waiting for something to happen, than professional football.

French opera is hard to do well, and Rameau is not kind to players. Aradia and Voicebox did a fine job of interpreting a difficult composer. Besides having a great band backing them up, Voicebox had a stellar lineup of soloists and a truly phenomenal choir to do justice to an under-appreciated composer. When this company puts on a fully orchestrated production, beautiful music happens. One wish though: the soloists had more than enough volume to dominate the orchestra. Could the band have been bigger? Or at the very least, louder?

Charles I of England, finding himself strapped for cash and having no way of raising funds, decided to prorogue Parliament for eleven years and rule England by divine right. This proved to be something of a bad idea, as an increasingly outraged aristocracy rebelled against the Crown, plunged the country into civil war for nine years, and had Charles beheaded.

Against this violent and chaotic background, England's cultural life should have ground to a halt, and although the period can hardly be described as a Golden Age (the artists of the time were more worried about staying alive than their own artistic development) it is nevertheless one of the most exotic periods in English music history. The English of the early mid-17th Century developed the rules of Renaissance composition so far as to be barely recognizable as Renaissance music, and while in (say) Italy, the new Baroque style featured new musical genres like opera and new techniques of composition like monody, and an independent bassline, the English had an eccentric and completely unique style of music quite unlike anything else in Europe.

It's repertoire that I would argue deserves to be performed more often, and I was glad to have the chance to hear Scaramella introduce Toronto audiences to the music of the English 17th Century last Saturday night at Victoria College Chapel. The program featured some excellent, hitherto-unknown composers that ought to be performed more often, including John Hingeston, Simon Ives, John Walsh, and Godfrey Finger.

Also on display were some eccentric English forms of the period. Lyra viol, a style of viola da gamba where the instrument plays full chords and is tuned in scordatura, was particular to England, and Ives's compositions for solo lyra viol were a much-appreciated part of the program. Theme and Variations (“Divisions on a Ground”) were also a favourite of the English, as were trio sonatas with continuo. Other strange beasts on display were the sonata by Henry Butler, with solo violin and viola da gamba parts, and the Jenkins fantasia, which had a lyra viol part as part of a chamber ensemble playing chords along with the organ. I'm happy to hear a Toronto-based taking a chance on some repertoire that's not a guaranteed crowd-pleaser and shedding some light on a turbulent period in history.

Scaramella's next concert is Saturday February 1 at 8pm in Victoria College Chapel, and features music composed for Viennese double bass and natural horns.

tariq kieran-brieflives-1g9a2957-b compressedQueen Elizabeth the First thought farts were hilarious. I learned this, and many other scatalogical facts about England in the 17th century, from “Brief Lives: songs and stories of old London,” a co-production between Toronto Masque theatre and Soulpepper currently playing as part of the Global Cabaret Festival at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. William Webster, himself a founding member of Soulpepper, stars in Patrick Garland's one-man cabaret staging of John Aubrey's manuscript Schediasmata: Brief Lives. Aubrey is credited with founding the biography as a literary form, and should probably be lauded as the true father of the celebrity tell-all as well. Although he delights in lurid anecdotes involving famous people -- his text was never intended for publication, one should point out-- “Brief Lives” is a fascinating look at life in England from the Golden Age of Elizabeth I through the Civil War and Restoration, brought vividly to life by director Derek Boyes and featuring songs from the period by musicians Katherine Hill, Terry McKenna, and Larry Beckwith.

Read more: Brief Lives
Back to top