The Toronto Bach Festival, taking place this coming May 26, 27 and 28, curated by long-time Tafelmusik oboist and Bach scholar John Abberger, is the first attempt to make an annual festival dedicated to what Abberger calls Bach’s “timeless music” a recurring part of the city’s musical calendar since the University of Toronto-backed Toronto International Bach Festival – under the direction of Bach luminary Helmuth Rilling – had Bach devotees circling their calendars months in advance from 2002 to 2006.
First, full disclosure of a personal bias: I prefer my early music live – up close and in person, the way it was intended at the time of its composition. Recordings of period music, even on period instruments, always leave me feeling a bit weird. So the past way-too-many months have been a real struggle for me. Now, there’s so much live performance to choose from that I hardly know where to begin. (Details of all these events mentioned here can be found in the listings, starting on page 34.)
Sep 23 & 24: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra invites us to “picture a vibrant city humming with creative spirit, attracting artists who exchange diverse ideas and perspectives.” Present day New York or Toronto? No, 18th-century London. “Handel’s London” offers up Handel, Purcell and Geminiani, also lesser-known works by Kusser and Hellendaa, and a Purcell-inspired piece by one of Tafelmusik’s own, the late Allan Whear. Guest director, leading from the harpsichord, is Avi Stein, associate organist and chorus master at Trinity Wall Street,a teacher at The Juilliard School and Yale University, and artistic director of the Helicon Foundation (New York).
For what feels like the first time in a long time, Toronto’s musical community is once again a busy and bustling place. Even a quick glance through this issue of The WholeNote will reveal a plethora of exciting and vibrant performances in a wide range of styles and genres, a welcome return after a stark, unpredictable and unsettling couple of years.
Although the broader world is not yet entirely back to normal, one has the sense that this spring’s increase in concerts is setting the stage for an even larger and more comprehensive reopening next season, planting seeds that, should the conditions be accommodating enough, will grow into an unprecedented artistic flourishing not seen since the early 20th century, with composers and performers creating a new Golden Age for both music and the Arts in general.
Utopian idealism? It is worth remembering that the greatest periods of artistic creativity and genius are often preceded by times of great social and political unrest, whether the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century or the two World Wars in the 20th. Given these precedents, it is not unreasonable to consider that the years following the COVID-19 pandemic will be times of profound artistic reflection and expression. It is with optimism and gladness, therefore, that this column looks at upcoming performances that have me enthused, across a wider range of genres than I usually do. It’s a personal and by no means comprehensive list of all that is taking place this month and next, but personal and somewhat more eclectic than usual is a good place to begin for anyone looking to jump back into the musical swim of things.
Over 270 years after his death, Bach’s music continues to inspire and attract both new and familiar audience members to concerts in numbers that are perhaps unmatched by any other Western composer. Why, all these centuries, later, is Bach still so appealing?
“There are several possible strands here,” John Butt contends. “One is that Bach was so influential on later composers, even if you don’t immediately hear that influence.” He describes Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin as successive inheritors of Bach’s innovations, incorporating and expanding on Bach’s musical developments. “The other side of the coin,” Butt continues, “is that Bach’s attitude as a composer was to try and absorb everything he knew about music from before him [and] intuit what we now call tonality. He is there at the point at which that system, which so many musical traditions are still using, was invented.”
Although a little bit misleading, and perhaps overly optimistic, the notion that we are entering a post-pandemic world is a seductive one right now, as governments, performing arts venues, theatres, restaurants, and countless other businesses enter a period of comprehensive reopening unseen since the summer of 2021.
Whether driven by a new, ‘hands-off’ governing approach or an overwhelming public desire to return to normalcy after nearly two years of restricted living, the progression of this latest loosening of restrictions is undoubtedly a source of hope, optimism, and relief for many performers, ensembles, presenters, and venues. Indeed, a cursory scan of this month’s concert listings could almost be mistaken for a month in pre-pandemic times, with a comprehensive collection of performances in a variety of genres that is very encouraging.