When Marshall Pynkoski boasted that Opera Atelier's performance of Alcina would be both the Canadian premiere of the opera and the first major Handel opera ever performed by the company, it was clear his expectations were high. Since the group's recent successes at Salzburg, La Scala and Versailles, I've felt a barely perceptible anxiety creeping in among the audience at Atelier's performances, almost as if we can't enjoy Opera Atelier without wondering how well they're going to represent Canada on the world stage. I mean, what if the Toronto premiere gets a standing ovation and the same show flops in San Francisco? What does that say about Torontonians as a concert-going public? Are our standards high enough? Our artists good enough? What if we're rubes?
Before the existence of public museums, gentlemen of a certain social standing would compile what they called a “cabinet of curiosities.” Like a museum in that it was a room, or rooms of artifacts devoted to culture in natural history, it differed in that the collection depended entirely on the whim of the gentleman collector and could include anything at all related to history, archaeology, geology, religious relics, antiquities and works of art. It was an approach to culture that depended on the collector’s freewheeling sense of enthusiasm.
One could feel it in the air at the annual Toronto Early Music Fair, where the wide-ranging talents of a diverse group of musicians were on display at Montgomery's Inn, along with a pile of antiques, musical scores and musical instruments, all curated as a labour of love by Early Music Toronto (EMT) and Frank Nakashima.
While we generally think of Elizabethan England as a Golden Age for the Arts, we often forget the political culture of paranoia, suspicion, and suspension of personal rights and freedoms that plagued England at the beginning of the 17th century. The average English citizen could expect to be detained indefinitely, tortured, and even executed if it was suspected that he was a member of a religion that was deemed by the English Crown to be hostile to English interests – namely, Catholicism. This was the theme of the Musicians in Ordinary's latest concert at Carr Hall at St. Michael's College, exploring the sacred music sponsored and composed by the undercover Catholics of England in a dangerous climate of religious persecution.
It didn't look like the Musicians in Ordinary had a particularly large body of work to choose from (given that the concert was dedicated to music that, by its very nature, was intended to remain as secret as possible) but despite lasting little over an hour, MiO managed to put together a comprehensive survey of composers from the English Renaissance, including Byrd, Robert Johnson, Tallis and Nicholas Strogers, and lutenist John Edwards played several solo English lute pieces as well as accompanied soprano Hallie Fishel with the help of a very fine violin band led by violinist Chris Verrette.
It was an interesting theme for a concert both from a historical and musical perspective, and the pre-concert lecture, given by Reverend Lisa Wang describing the persecution endured by Catholics in Elizabethan England was a welcome addition to the evening, but St. Mike's needs to invest in a stage manager if only to remind the octagenarian members of the concertgoing public that they are carrying cell phones that need to be turned off before the concert starts (yes, if you go to a classical concert in Toronto in 2014, someone's cell phone will still ruin part of it). The performers were further hindered by Carr Hall's air-conditioning system, which was left on throughout the concert and was loud enough to render most of the music, especially the lute solos, inaudible (which would have been bad enough without letting a techinician come in mid-concert to try to turn off said air conditioning with his walkie-talkie still on and receiving messages). This is simply not acceptable for a concert that advertizes itself to the paying public. Still, frustration is a powerful motivator, and the Musicians did seem to improve with the disturbances, or at least try harder to win back the audience's attention. Here's hoping they outshine their venue next time.
Although the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has done all three, it is 14 years since Toronto's finest last set foot (a couple hundred feet actually) on the European continent, which makes them near strangers on their current five-nation tour.
The five-nation tour is actually only a five-city tour. It began near Vienna (the outdoor Grafenegg Festival outside the Austrian capital), continued in Amsterdam and Wiesbaden, currently finds the players in Helsinki; it will conclude in Reykjavik.
Not exactly a Napoleonic campaign, you may argue, but then, the days of the three-week multi-stop grand tour are virtually over, according to a representative of Harrison Parrot, the English agency responsible for managing this and many other orchestral visitations.