Tafelmusik's 20th Season

Jeanne Lamon was addressing the faithful in Toronto’s Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church. But far from delivering a sober sermon, the musical director of the Tafelmusik Baroque orchestra was talking about filthy lucre.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 19, 1998

Tafelmusik's 20th Season

Jeanne Lamon was addressing the faithful in Toronto's Trinity-St. Paul's United Church. But far from delivering a sober sermon, the musical director of the Tafelmusik Baroque orchestra was talking about filthy lucre. She noted that the Telemann piece her ensemble would shortly play was a sprightly suite about, of all things, the stock market. And she jokingly wondered how, given the recent economic upheaval, La Bourse would be received during the orchestra's upcoming Asian tour. The audience, sitting on hard wooden pews in the 110-year-old church, laughed and applauded as violinist Lamon and her troupe launched Tafelmusik's 20th season last month. But just as they took up their instruments, an elderly, somewhat frail woman in the audience stood up and struggled to make herself heard. "You have made a big difference in my life," she said, "and I thank you for all the wonderful music you have brought to us."

It is impossible to imagine that kind of exchange in a large symphony hall. And it is typical of the kind of homegrown enthusiasm that has helped make Tafelmusik one of the world's preeminent Baroque orchestras. The 19-member ensemble, which specializes in 17th- and 18th-century works (though it does stray into other eras) and uses period instruments or modern replicas, has released 55 recordings, 41 of them on the Sony Classical label. The latest, Handel's Messiah Choruses, is due later this month from CBC Records. Tafelmusik tours 12 weeks of the year, playing 50 engagements abroad in addition to a 43-concert subscription series at home. It has won four Junos in Canada and international honors including Germany's top recording tribute, the Echo Klassik Award, in 1996. During its 15th European tour earlier this year, Vienna, Austria's Die Presse raved about its "silvery gossamer robe of sound."

Baroque music played on period instruments - using gut instead of metal strings, or harpsichord instead of piano - has enjoyed a revival during the past quarter century. But Tafelmusik has also won fans because of its approach to the repertoire. Lamon and her musicians often research how early music might have sounded. One result is that the tempo for many pieces is much faster than usual. And Lamon believes in featuring composers other than Baroque's Big Four: Bach, Handel, Telemann and Vivaldi. "You can still play Vivaldi's Four Seasons," she says, "but there's a good chance that people will also love Schmelzer's Lament, a beautiful piece which you don't encounter much."

Fans also perceive a family atmosphere in Tafelmusik, a sense of the players' shared joy in what they do. Neil Crory, music producer at CBC-Radio, has supervised most of the ensemble's live broadcasts and worked on some of its recordings. "In the beginning, they were very earnest," he says, "but with the success of their recordings and tours, they've gained confidence. There's greater freedom now, and a zest for making music. They look like they're enjoying themselves, and audiences respond to that."

That impression of camaraderie is at least partly attributable to the fact that Lamon, 49, is not only musical director but also plays with the orchestra. A native of New York City who moved to Canada in 1981 to head Tafelmusik, she also teaches privately and at the University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Music. Lamon often practises in the upstairs music room at her modest house in downtown Toronto, and says she gets embarrassed if passersby gather on the sidewalk to listen. She has seven violins, and purchased the main one - made in 1730 by Venice's Santo Serafin - at a New York auction five years ago. A friend lent her the money, which she says would have bought "an average Toronto house" (about $250,000). "I had about 20 minutes to play it before the auction began," she recalls, "in a large room with lousy acoustics and filled with dozens of other musicians trying out instruments. It was bedlam, but I got lucky."

While Lamon charts the orchestra's musical journey, managing director Ottie Lockey, who also began in 1981, keeps it on a steady financial course. For the second year in a row, the orchestra has shown a small surplus, $15,000 this year on an operating budget of $2.8 million - not bad in an era of imperilled arts groups. "we knew that the secret of success, after musical excellence, was to tour and record a lot," says Lockey.

In November, Tafelmusik embarks on a three-week Asian tour, making its debut in mainland China and including its fourth trip to Japan - where it has throngs of fans. CBC-Radio is sending a producer along to tape a documentary that will air in 1999. Glenn Hodgins, the group's veteran director of operations, says the Asian tour presents special challenges - such as a "typhoon clause" spelling out what would happen if such a disaster occurred. More pressing is the fact that China apparently has no harpsichords. The orchestra wants to donate one to the Beijing Conservatory, where it will hold master classes in November, but needs to find a sponsor to cover the $25,000 cost of buying and transporting the instrument.

Orchestra members are now rehearsing for a production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro with much-acclaimed Opera Atelier. Meanwhile, in the long term, Lamon says Tafelmusik - like all classical groups - has to find ways to expand its audience in an era when overall CD sales are down and people can listen to concerts live on the Internet. But if the rage for period instruments is any indicator, the more high-tech life gets, the more people will want to hear sweet, unamplified notes emanating from aged wood - and gut strings.

Maclean's October 19, 1998