by Christopher Broderson
I caught up with Jeanne Lamon by telephone from her hotel room in Adelaide, Australia, where she was in the midst of a multiweek tour.
Q: The major news item, of course, is the launch of Tafelmusik’s very own label, a phenomenon that is becoming more and more common with all sorts of musical organizations—although I would say that for Baroque orchestras, there aren’t too many that have their own label, at least at the moment. You may be the first such group in North America to do so.
A: As far as I know, that’s the case. It made sense for us in so many ways, and it comes at a very exciting time in our history. I’ve been here 30 years, and it was clear to me that this was the moment to take full control by integrating all aspects of our organization: programming, media, marketing. It’s vertical, horizontal, and every other kind of integration rolled into one. We no longer have a recording label with its own agenda as to what they want us to record in order to fill out their catalog. Now it’s all up to us. We can integrate what we’re recording with our upcoming tours. We do a lot of touring, and recording and touring are, of course, very closely linked. Our recordings are our calling cards—presenters like to use the CDs to promote our concerts. It’s all very closely related, and in this way we have complete control. We’re also free to market online, in whatever format is suitable. It’s just an amazingly exciting time in our history, and a great opportunity to round out all of our activities.
Q: Reading the press release, it seems that a big part of this is video. Is that an extension of your marketing strategy?
A: I think it’s less about marketing and more a reflection of our programming. We have a new, multidisciplinary project called The Galileo Project that we’re been touring around the world—that’s in fact what we’re doing in Australia at the moment. It’s the story of the life of the astronomer Galileo; there’s a large visual component—images from the Hubble Space Telescope and so on—coupled with a lot of music from the period. There’s narration that ties it all together. So it’s a multidisciplinary presentation, the kind of material that’s very attractive to presenters around the world. We’ve done this program in China with narration in Mandarin, in Mexico with a Spanish-speaking actor, all over North America, and now in Australia and New Zealand. Sometimes potential presenters don’t understand what we’re talking about, because it’s such an unusual sort of program. So we have this DVD that we can give them and say, “This is what it’s all about.” For example, we’ll be touring this in Japan in November. Our Japanese agent came down from Tokyo to Sydney recently to see the show and get a better idea about it. Now that might sound like a short hop for us in North America, but in reality it’s a 10-hour flight!
Q: I don’t doubt it.
A: In that amount of time, we could fly to the tip of South America! In any case, she came all the way to Sydney to see the show live, because it is so hard to explain. But for those who can’t make it to a live show, it’s very exciting to have this material available in video format. The program is always so well received; people are generally in awe. We sell a lot of the DVDs at concerts—it’s only been out for about a month, and already we’ve had to have it reprinted three times!
Q: Great. I imagine that with this show and the DVD, you’re trying to attract more young people.
A: Absolutely. I can tell you that more and more young people are showing up at our concerts. For a period-instrument orchestra, we’re rather high-tech. We’re very forward-thinking in terms of our Internet presence, everything from our Facebook page to the availability of our music on iTunes and so on. Especially our website—it’s really very good. I invite everyone to check it out. It’s highly interactive, with sound examples and links to our various CDs. Everything is integrated there as well.
Q: Let’s talk a bit about the ensemble’s repertoire. Like many Baroque orchestras, you seem to be branching out into later music. For example, you’ll be recording a series of the Beethoven symphonies with Bruno Weil.
A: That’s right.
Q: It’s always a bit of a paradox when Baroque orchestras branch out into later repertoire.
A: You mean music that’s not from the Baroque era.
Q: Right. How far do you see yourselves going?
A: I know the term “Baroque orchestra” is a bit misleading, so to straighten out the paradox, as you call it, perhaps we should call ourselves “an orchestra that specializes in playing music on instruments of the period in historically informed ways.”
Q: That wouldn’t quite fit on the program notes, would it?
A: No, it doesn’t roll off the tongue. So we continue to say “Baroque orchestra,” because that’s how we started and that’s how most people know us. It’s really an approach to music-making signifying that we care about how the music might have sounded originally, and what the composer’s intentions were. At this point, we play Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn quite comfortably and happily. We haven’t done very much music beyond that—I’m not sure we will, but you never know. I’m not going to say “never.” We’ve done some Rossini, and we’ll be recording a Weber opera soon— Der Freischütz.
Q: That ought to be fun.
A: All of which is early 19th-century music, a period that we have a lot of fun exploring.
Q: Let’s talk a little bit about the group and how it came to be. How old is Tafelmusik now?
A: I think we’re in our 33rd season, something like that. I’m in my 31st season with them.
Q: Back then, would you have ever envisioned that you would come this far?
A: No, it just sort of happened step by step. You wake up one day and say, “How did that happen?”
Q: Getting a major recording contract with Sony was a major coup—and that was fairly early on, wasn’t it?
A: Yes, that was fairly early in our history, in 1990. I guess we were with Sony for about eight years, and in those eight years we did about five CDs a year, about 40 total. That was a pretty fertile time for us. The Sony titles represent about half of our total output—we have about 80 CDs in our discography. But not all of them are currently available, which is another reason we chose to launch our own label. We were able to get licensing rights from Sony so that we can rerelease the deleted ones. You know how it is with these companies: The CDs are in circulation for a few years and then they just let them go. They don’t give the masters to you afterwards; they own the rights to them. The music is sitting out there in limbo, and I know people want to hear it. For example, our recording of the Brandenburg Concertos —the solution was to rerelease it on our own label. There are quite a few Tafelmusik titles like that, and so it was quite exciting to get the rights from Sony, also from CBC Records, which is, or was, a major outlet for us in Canada. With all the cuts in government spending to the CBC, most of those titles don’t really exist anymore, at least as far as the consumer in concerned. It was good to be able to address that issue.
Q: I suspect that the Sony CDs are the way that most of us have gotten to know Tafelmusik. I confess that even though I’m only about four hours away from you in Toronto, I’ve never heard you live. I suppose I’ll have to rectify that situation someday.
A: Please do. Perhaps we should come and give a concert in Detroit sometime.
Q: Not a bad idea. Aside from the rereleases on your own label, there are some new items. Tell us about those.
A: Well, I think there’s a pent-up demand for new stuff from us, especially DVDs. I should mention that the Galileo DVD also contains a CD, so traditional audiophiles can enjoy the musical component by itself, minus the video.
Q: That’s a good idea.
A: I’m an audio-type person like you are; I have trouble sitting still and watching a video. I prefer to turn on a CD and walk around and do things.
Q: But once again, producing DVDs is the smart thing to do, because you’re marketing to the video crowd, the kids who play video games and spend all their waking moments on an iPad or iPhone.
A: Absolutely. The other feature of our new label that I hope will attract younger listeners is live recordings. I know other period orchestras are already doing this, but it’s fairly new for us. We now have a brand-new concert hall in Toronto called Koerner Hall, attached to the Royal Conservatory. Not only does it have excellent acoustics, but its sound isolation is top-notch, which makes live recording so much easier. You don’t hear the rumbling of traffic and the subway. So we will be doing mostly live recordings in the future. We did a full-length, live recording of Messiah last Christmas, and we’ve already released a live recording of our “sing-along” Messiah . The recordings take place over several concerts; we do the editing on the spot and there you go—out it comes. Because we have this brand-new hall to work in, the whole process is so much easier. Because we have our own label, we can choose engineers, repertoire, all of that. We’re not limited to studio recordings anymore; we’ll be doing DVDs and especially live recordings. It’s very exciting to have that range of possibilities.
Q: That’s an interesting concept. My understanding is that several European period-instrument orchestras do nothing but live recordings. They’ll record a live concert two or three times, and then augment that with an additional session to correct mistakes as needed. Basically what you hear is a live performance.
A: That’s right. That’s exactly what we’re doing. As part of the Beethoven series with Bruno Weil, for example, we’ll be live-recording the “Eroica” in May. So that will be our third live recording so far. There’s something extremely gratifying about a live recording, as opposed to a studio recording. The excitement of a live concert pays off for both the musicians and the audience, I think. You’d think that audiences would be disturbed by the sight of microphones on stage, but they don’t seem to mind. In fact, they seem to get into the spirit of things, the fact that they were at a concert that will later appear on CD or DVD. I was expecting this to be an impediment, as in, “I paid a lot of money for these tickets—I didn’t expect to be in the middle of a recording studio.” But I’ve never gotten that reaction—ever.
Q: Do you keep the applause at the end, or do you edit it out?
A: I haven’t heard the final results yet, but I think we’re going to edit it out. That would be my choice.
Q: For the Beethoven cycle, will you be augmenting the group? Adding more strings, perhaps?
A: Oh, yes. When we play Beethoven, we have an orchestra of about 40. About double our Baroque size.
Q: Another component of Tafelmusik is your chamber choir. Is that a paid, professional group of singers?
A: Yes, very much so. Quite excellent. So it’s great to be able to bring this group to the world’s attention as well.
Q: Explain how the “sing-along” Messiah works. Does the audience become the chorus?
A: Exactly. They have a great deal of fun doing it, and they’re also part of the filming. The camerawork on this DVD was quite expert, I must say. You become part of the experience. Watching the film, you feel like you’re actually in the audience; you could get out your score and start singing along.
Q: Given the current political situation, a topic that’s on many people’s minds is arts funding. We here in the States have this impression of Canada being strongly supportive of the arts. Is that true in the case of Tafelmusik?
A: The government is somewhat supportive. We’d like to see more of that, as I’m sure you would, maybe even to the extent that one finds in Europe. That will probably never happen, but compared with the U.S., we’re still far better off. We do a lot of fund-raising and all the other things that American orchestras have to do to survive. So it’s not exactly a gravy train here! There is some belt-tightening going on.
It was fun to revisit Tafelmusik’s Four Seasons and Brandenburgs, recordings that have occupied an honored spot in my library since they were originally issued by Sony in 1992 and 1994, respectively. The Brandenburg set received a rave review from Brian Robins in Fanfare 19:4; he deemed it worthy to stand alongside his reference recording by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert on Archiv. Then as now, the listener’s attention is drawn to the soloists, both regulars and guests; they’re the ones who can make or break a recording of Bach’s famous concertos. Guest trumpeter Crispian Steele-Perkins plays flawlessly in Concerto 2, although a bit more self-effacingly than the ubiquitous Friedemann Immer, who is the soloist, it seems, in nearly every other version in the catalog. Violinist and Tafelmusik leader Jeanne Lamon is a soloist in all of the Brandenburg s but the Third and Sixth; in the Sixth she is heard as one of the viola soloists. Her thoroughly cultivated musicianship is evident in every bar. In Concerto 5, Dutch flutist Marten Root is a solid asset while Charlotte Nediger, Tafelmusik’s resident harpsichordist, knocks ’em dead in the famous first-movement cadenza. Concerto 1 is notable for its large wind contingent; here, the two natural horns are a bit more assertive than most, a perfect illustration of how the true Baroque Jagdhorn should sound. The group’s longtime principal oboist, John Abberger, surely one of Tafelmusik’s greatest assets, plays with ravishing tone and apt expression in Concertos 1 and 2.
I was unable to discover a reference in the Fanfare Archive to Tafelmusik’s 1992 recording of The Four Seasons , but I doubt that the magazine’s resident experts at the time gave it anything less than a resounding bravissimo . Violin soloist Lamon eschews the sort of shock treatment typical of a Fabio Biondi or Il Giardino Armonico, instead aiming for a more centered, musical approach. Throughout she is poised and technically accomplished. The orchestral execution is also dialed-back in comparison with some; the concluding movement to the “Summer” Concerto, for example, is certainly dramatic but not the take-no-prisoners approach of Il Giardino Armonico. The marvel in both the Bach and the Vivaldi is the smoothness and tightness of Tafelmusik’s string ensemble. One expects nothing less in a group that has played together for so long with the same person at the helm.
One surprise that greeted me when I re-auditioned these CDs was the recorded sound. Back in the day, Sony’s 20-bit Super Bit Mapping was touted as the industry standard. It still holds up well, but compared with the CD that accompanies the Galileo Project DVD, the aural perspective of the Sony CDs is more distant, and there is a digital glare to the violin sound that I hadn’t noticed before. Tafelmusik’s self-produced and -recorded CD, on the other hand, examines the ensemble from a closer vantage point, and the string sound is warmer, smoother, and altogether more inviting.
I suspect that for many videophiles, The Galileo Project will conjure up memories of PBS programs such as Nova or perhaps Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation . The opening scene has the group standing in circular fashion around the harpsichord, with a large circular screen above, upon which still images are projected, cosmological, historical, and otherwise. The players raise their bows and commence performing Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins, op. 3/5—entirely from memory, it should be noted, as is all the music on this video. The first group of music bears the rubric “Harmony of the Spheres I,” and ends with an extensive set of excerpts from Lully’s Phaeton. Following this are three main video chapters dealing with “Music from the Time of Galileo,” “Music from the Time of Isaac Newton,” and “The Dresden Festival of the Planets.”
Narrator Shaun Smyth reads excerpts from letters and other documents of the period in a loud, declamatory style, giving us the vital link between the music and the overall astronomical theme. In this way, pieces by Monteverdi, Merula, and Marini are tied to events in the life of astronomer Galileo’s (who was also an amateur lute player). In conjunction with the music of Purcell, the great Isaac Newton makes an appearance, although the viewer is somewhat disappointed to learn that Newton was not much of a music lover, and even spoke disapprovingly of the young Handel after hearing him perform.
The segment on the Dresden Festival is especially intriguing, and it receives the most air time on the DVD. Convened in 1719 as part of the month-long festivities commemorating the marriage of August the Strong to Maria Josepha of Austria, the festival celebrated the arts and recent discoveries in astronomy, linking the two by means of theme concerts devoted to each of the known planets at the time: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Telemann and Handel were in attendance and contributed music to the event, as did several of the musicians in the Dresden court orchestra, among then Jan Dismas Zelenka and the highest-paid musician at court, lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss, whose reconstructed lute concerto is heard here.
The program concludes with “Harmony of Spheres II,” consisting of the sinfonias from Bach’s Cantatas 1 and 29. The latter is an especially joyous piece that should be familiar to all fans of Bach’s music; here the solo part is played on violin, rather than on the customary organ. Far from being a case of score-tampering, in actuality the sinfonia is Bach’s own reworking of the präludium from the E-Major Violin Partita, BWV 1006, so the (re)arrangement is entirely appropriate.
No one should be put off at the prospect of having to sit through a history lesson; the material goes down quite smoothly and there’s no pop quiz at the end to worry about. The focus is on the music, and Tafelmusik’s performances are infectiously exuberant, even commanding. It is humbling to watch these talented performers sail through this difficult music with nary a scrap of sheet music in sight. Thankfully, the camera angles and placement are geared toward torso and full-body shots; there’s little of the disembodied “fingers on the fingerboard” that plagues many TV broadcasts. The musicians do dance about quite a bit—there’s even a bit of choreography at one point when they march around in opposing circles while the sign of the zodiac is projected overhead.
My only criticism has to do with the presentation of the music. Because there is no verbal or visual identification of the piece about to be played, one has to follow the program in the booklet. If the lights are dimmed in your home theater room as they are in mine, this means you’ll need to have a flashlight handy. Also, there is no identification, either on screen or in the booklet, of the soloists. Jeanne Lamon and oboist John Abberger I recognize, but the group’s personnel has changed so much that I haven’t a clue who the others are.
Picture quality (16:9 anamorphic) is top-notch. The sound format is listed as “Stereo AC3”; I am unable to detect any rear-channel information. Given the excellence of the soundtrack, hardly a problem with this sort of material. In all, a glorious achievement and another feather in the cap of North America’s premier period-instrument orchestra.