May 6, 2019

Bach and Zelenka MAGNIFIED

Bach Magnificat: Pre-concert chat

Ahead of each performance of Bach Magnificat, Tafelmusik alto Kate Helsen will lead us through a pre-concert chat, exploring composers J.S. Bach and J.D. Zelenka, and the music you'll hear on stage. Kate Helsen began singing with Tafelmusik in 2000. In 2004 Kate moved to Germany to pursue her Ph.D. in Medieval Musicology. When she returned to Ontario in 2008, she was delighted to rejoin Tafelmusik. As a musicologist, she specializes in medieval chant research and teaches music history at the University of Western Ontario. Here's a taste of what you'll hear and learn from Kate at our free pre-concert chat.

By Kate Helsen, alto

A fugue begins with the statement of a lone melody. It stands unaccompanied, no harmony or embellishments added, and takes up residence in your memory. You would recognize it anywhere. As it winds to a close, a second voice takes it up again and tempts your ear away, while the first voice now darts around it, supporting and reframing it as one part of a duet instead of a solo line. Your mind is just beginning to sort out how the duet fits together, and now another voice interrupts and demands your attention by declaring the familiar melody once more; all the while, the other two voices encircle it, and so it continues.... I want to recall fugues not only because they are a famous favourite of both J. S. Bach and J. D. Zelenka, whose works are featured on the program, but because fugues – fugues that work, that is – depend on two things: memory and imagination. The more fluently you can recall the main melodies, and stay open to the unexpected territories of the counter-melodies, the richer your musical experience.  These voices depend on your attention – the relationships between the lines of music are created in your mind, combining what you recall with what you might anticipate. To scale up the analogy, performing historical works also depends on the connection of memory and imagination: history’s artifacts and stories, and what we are inspired to do with them.

This concert presents two pieces that live in that overlap between legacy and imagination: J. S. Bach’s Magnificat in D major and J. D. Zelenka’s Missa Divi Xaverii. Both of these works set standard texts solidified in generations of liturgical memory, yet their musical settings seem specifically aimed at sparking our imaginations. In the listening, we are compelled to wonder if we understand, exactly, what they were up to. If Bach was in the audience tonight, what could he tell us about our interpretation of a particularly obscure section of the Zelenka mass? He certainly would have said something; the two composers knew and admired each other, exchanging compositions occasionally. Bach could travel from Leipzig to Dresden, where Zelenka led the court orchestra, in about the time it takes me to get from my house, outside of London, to Toronto. There is speculation that some of Bach’s most famous pieces pay subtle homage to Zelenka, and of course, Zelenka closely studied the scores Bach sent to him.

This brings us to the scores they left to us – sometimes all but illegible – as cornerstones of our collective memory of music history, and coax them to life again with imagination: What might it have been like to hear Zelenka’s impressive and virtuosic St. Francis Xavier mass, there at the equally impressive Dresden Catholic Court church in 1729? How did Bach’s Magnificat, begin life as a Christmas piece in 1723, only to be re-imagined in a different key with additional instruments eight years later? In my pre-concert chat, I hope to explore that fugue-like interplay between memory and imagination in these beautiful works of art.

Bach Magnificat runs from May 9–12, 2019 at Koerner Hall. Pre-concert chats begin one hour before each concert. Click here for tickets

Chamber Choir
Ivars Taurins
Kate Helsen