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Tafelmusik: House of Dreams

by Heather Leviston

A feast of music from Toronto-based Baroque ensemble Tafelmusik celebrated Musica Viva’s 70th anniversary and the launch of its 2015 season. As Musica Viva is the world’s largest presenter of chamber music, it was expected that such an auspicious occasion would feature something extraordinary and, after the success of Tafelmusik’s Galileo Project for Musica Viva in 2012, their House of Dreams was bound to fit the bill.

This project was planned as an international collaboration with the present owners and administrators of the five historical houses featured: Handel House Museum; Smith Mangilli-Valmarano (formerly British Consul Joseph Smith’s palazzo on the Grand Canal); the Golden ABC (now containing a pancake parlour in Delft); the Palais Royale (Paris) and the Bach Museum and Archive (Leipzig).

The creator of this work, Alison Mackay, has played the violone and double bass with Tafelmusik since 1979. Her innovative interweaving of music, art, history and place generates fascinating insights into how they inform each other. Further layers of meaning were revealed as the concert unfolded, including the significance of the “mirror” dominating the stage and projecting live footage of the auditorium as the audience entered. The frame was an enlarged replica of one found in Smith’s palazzo in Venice – the home of Vivaldi, Canaletto and glass making – the home of the mirror. And there was the audience with instruments and a group of musicians onstage in the foreground, just as visitors to the houses of the rich and famous might have experienced reflections in mirrors that hung beside great paintings.

As the lights dimmed, violinists began playing in the side aisles of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and processed up to the stage to join the woodwind and continuo musicians. Changing projections indicated that our Narrator and Grand Tour guide, Blair Williams, had bidden his dog farewell, closed the front door and that we were now ready to set off on our journey, beginning in Handel’s London. Venice and Delft completed the “Triptych” before interval, with Paris, Leipzig and a Handel Reprise comprising the “Mirror Image” component after interval. At the end of the journey we were taken back home to the dog and a pink door that, finally, dissolved into our mirrored image in the concert hall.

One of the most powerful elements of this theatrical presentation was the fact that all of the music was played from memory. There were no music stands to impede the movements of the musicians as they changed configuration for the many diverse items, nor light from the stands to interfere with the clarity of the golden-framed images. Most importantly, the musicians were free to communicate with each other and with the audience directly. As cellist Allen Whear explained at the presentation after the concert, instrumentalists are not used to playing chamber music from memory and such a task compelled them to engage with the music at a deeper level. He also praised the quality of the hall as the clarity of the acoustic enabled the musicians to play with even greater nuance.

Indeed, all instruments sounded warm and resonant even when the players occasionally had their backs to the audience. It was clear that Tafelmusik had been performing The House of Dreams for some time since all aspects of this complex performance were as highly polished as the mirrors in these impressive spaces. Although under the strong leadership of the ensemble’s Music Director, Jeanne Lamon, the responsibility for performance excellence was very much shared as the seventeen players shifted between the roles of soloist and ensemble member. Most of the selected excerpts were Allegro movements played with skill and vitality, but quieter more reflective interspersed these with passages of striking tranquility and beauty.

Handel’s music comprised a Prelude from Theodoro, movements from three concerti grossi and dances from Alcina, including the signature theme in “Entrance of the Pleasant Dreams”. It was particularly exciting to see the violinist on stage playing in front of her photo in the room where Handel had composed and held rehearsals for Alcina.

A Canaletto painting owned by Handel dissolved into one owned by Canaletto’s Venetian agent, Joseph Smith, setting the scene for some very lovely lute playing in a Largo from Vivaldi’s Concerto in D major for lute. The following Allegro movements from three of his concertos for two oboes, bassoon and two cellos certainly provided variety and interest, but the degree of digital movement accompanying these works tended to divide the attention to the point where sensory overload threatened.

Paintings by Vermeer became a visual focus for the Delft component with music by Sweelinck and Purcell, the latter because of the William III of Orange’s patronage. Olivier Fontin’s playing of Sweelinck’s Fortune My Foe was nicely paired with Vermeer’s painting of a woman playing the virginals in The Music Lesson while the Purcell selections ranged from three vibrant female violinists standing before Vermeer’s portraits of three women (red hair matching red hat, but I couldn’t see if the central violinist was wearing pearl earrings) to a beautiful rocking lullaby complemented by a backdrop of A Maid Asleep.

Arguably, the most coherent section of the program was Paris, the setting for selections from only one work by Marin Marais: his Suite from Alcyone. In addition to some superb playing, with dramatic musical effects, the visual component was focused on the story of that opera. Based on a plot from Ovid’s Metamorphoses it provided a link to Ovid’s descriptions of the House of Dreams, while descriptions of the salon of the Palais Royale with its huge mirrors (techniques in working glass having been stolen from the Venetians) provided yet another.

The Leipzig visit was concluded with an exhilarating Allegro from Bach’s Concerto in D minor for two violins and then it was back home with a reprise of the two Handel items that began the concert. An image very like Handel’s bedroom with its crimson, canopied bed was personalized by the narrator’s Hudson’s Bay Company scarf draped over the chair, which suggested journey’s end. Blair Williams completed what had been an almost overwhelmingly informative tour with Bottom’s awakening speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It seemed that Tafelmusik’s project was more than a single concert; it was a trigger for delving further into the fascinating relationship between the arts and their social contexts. Whether it was the linen from Dutch flax fields providing a link between Vermeer’s canvas and Purcell’s manuscript paper, or the vast collection of minerals stored in the house of Bach’s close friend Georg Bose connecting with the pigments essential to paintings by the masters, the threads that link ideas and lives were presented in a way that was at once illuminating and entertaining.

Although it is perhaps unfair to remark on an absence in a project so thoughtfully designed, it seemed a little ironic that, despite so many references to opera, no singing was included. Who knows? Given Tafelmusik’s ongoing collaboration with these five significant houses, a vocal component might be included in a future project. Whatever their content, this present degustation of Baroque delicacies excited and delighted, aurally, visually and intellectually, leaving an appreciative audience with an appetite for future journeys of discovery.


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