Friday, February 20, 2015

Tafelmusik at Hammer Baroque

By David Fawcett

Launching a niche concert series is a calculated risk. At the moment there isn’t, for example, a New Music series in Hamilton. Even the HPO’s What Next? Festival comes and goes. Michael Schulte’s Chamber Music Hamilton, on the other hand, flourishes.

Full marks, then, to tenor Bud Roach who has started his own Ancient Music series with the handle Hammer Baroque. He presented a concert by the celebrated Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra on Wednesday evening (Feb. 4.) at The Church of St. John the Evangelist (The Rock on Locke).*

The church is an acoustically satisfactory and intimate venue. Its pews, seating about 200, were full to overflowing onto the stage on this occasion. From their reaction I suspect most of them were familiar with Tafelmusik and knew what to expect.

Tafelmusik is experiencing a transition as their long time leader, Jeanne Lamon, is retiring. New leaders are getting trials through the concerts and tours of the present season. Last night’s leader was Catherine Manson who is an experienced Early Music player and, amongst other things, the first violin of the London Haydn Quartet.

The orchestra consisted of 10 strings (including a fretted gamba bass), two oboes, a bassoon and harpsichord. Some of the pieces were, however, for strings and continuo.

The program on of this concert was exclusively of late Baroque composers: Fux, J.S. Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann. Much has been written about the International Style which was current across Europe in the late 18th Century and whose most enduring composer is Mozart. The mature Baroque style was similarly ubiquitous and this concert was certainly a testament to that. Baroque composers frequently alternate a small group of solo instruments (the concertino) with the full orchestra (the ripieno).The pieces were skillfully chosen, though, and there was sufficient contrast to avoid everything sounding the same.

They opened with a J.J. Fux Orchestral Suite in D Minor. Fux is best known as the author of the 1725 treatise on late Renaissance polyphony, Gradus Ad Parnassum. His music, however, sounds very much like that of his better-remembered contemporaries.

The woodwinds left the stage for the next piece, the Vivaldi Concerto for Strings in C. It provided an interesting contrast to the Fux both in its instrumentation and in the familiar, brilliant Vivaldi string-writing style. The first movement is a melody accompanied by steady eighth-notes in the other instruments. It’s followed by a short slow movement, long notes in the upper voices providing a counterpoint to a moving bass line. The finale is faster but similar to the first. And it’s all over in little more than four minutes.

J.S. Bach was the composer of the next offering, a Violin Concerto in A Minor. Catherine Manson played the solo part. Period string players often play with no vibrato and that, coupled with the slighly lower tuning of the instruments, results in the distinctive sound which some people find unpleasant and whiny. This approach does require that everyone play perfectly in tune and that was the case throughout last night’s concert. The soloist added some vibrato to long-held notes which provided contrast. Moreover, with a small orchestra such as this, there is no danger of the soloist, always playing pitches above those of the accompanying ensemble, being overwhelmed.

After the long break they returned to Bach for the Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C Minor. I was familiar with the music of the first movement, which Bach reworked from a harpsicord concerto,but didn't recognize the music of the other movements. The violin, oboe and continuo form the concertino in this piece. Oboist John Abberger played his period instrument beautifully, matching the violin wonderfully.

They finished with the Telemann Suite in Bb Major. In a sense, they left the best until last. In this work, the composer employs two concertino groups which sometimes play separately and sometimes together. One is two violins and cello, the other two oboes and bassoon. Rapid passages by the twin oboes and paired violins were impressive and fun to listen to, and lifted the suite’s Conclusion. By varying the instrumentation and through the contrast between tempo and moods of its 8 movements, Tafelmusik and Teleman provided a memorable climax to the concert.

The orchestra offers a full season at a variety of Toronto venues even programming Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the Mass in C (hardly Baroque repertoire!) conducted by the MontrĂ©al Symphony’s Kent Nagano.

Hammer Baroque is back on Feb. 14th with a vocal quartet concert called The Poor Man’s Vespers and again on March 7, with the Gallery Players of Niagara for a concert presentation of Henry Purcell’s masterpiece, the opera Dido and Aeneas. The latter concert is part of the 5 At the First series at First Unitarian Church on Dundurn St.

*Wouldn’t you expect a church called “The Rock” to have something to do with St. Peter?

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