US Tour 2017: Oberlin and Penn State

By Christopher Verrette, violin

Tafelmusik is touring the US from February 28 to March 11, 2017, presenting Alison Mackay’s multimedia program J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation. This concert combines text, music, stunning projected video and images to explore the world of the artisans—paper makers, violin carvers, string spinners, and performers—who helped J.S. Bach realize his musical genius. Tour dates and other info at

Less than 24 hours after playing our final Visions & Voyages concert at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Tafelmusik set off by bus to the US for a two-week long tour. We experienced no difficulty with visas for musicians at the border, which was a relief, but the paperwork for our stage gear was missing a stamp from our last journey, so we had to double back to the Canadian side to attend to that. Our first stop was Oberlin, Ohio, home to Oberlin College and one of the finest conservatories of music in North America. The school was founded in 1833 by a couple of ministers as one of the first coeducational institutions of learning, and was open to African-Americans as well. Oberlin is otherwise a quiet town with its Ben Franklin Five and Dime store and Apollo Art Decoy movie theatre (which showed its first “talkie” back in 1928) still in use. The campus itself is lovely, and it was welcoming to see the maple trees on the central green being tapped for syrup.

Bobblehead Bach on stage in Finney Chapel, Oberlin, OH. Photo: Pat Jordan
Bobblehead Bach on stage in Finney Chapel, Oberlin, OH. Photo: Pat Jordan

Oberlin has one the oldest and best programs for historical performance, including a summer institute that is in its 46th year. A group of us were able to visit with one of its architects, Catharina Meints, and get a tour of the collection of violas da gamba and other instruments that she and her late husband, James Caldwell amassed over the years. They began collecting in the late 1960’s (she explained that their courtship consisted mostly of playing viol duets!) and the process was not merely one of accumulation of instruments but also of their restoration and of learning a great deal about different national styles of design and construction, and their relation to other arts. One detail she pointed out that has really stuck with me is the head of a 1740ish French instrument, which is a representation of a “noble savage”, a beautiful embodiment of that view of the North American peoples, especially as we come from last week’s Sesquicentennial project.

Bobblehead Bach with the Nittany Lion, Penn States official mascot. Photo: Pat Jordan
Bobblehead Bach with Penn State’s mascot, the Nittany Lion. Photo: Pat Jordan

Our next stop was Penn State University, our third recent visit there. Larger than Oberlin, it is still very much a college town, in fact, the name of the town is “State College”. The university has a deep history dating back to the 1850s, commemorated by many informative signs on the campus, and visible in many old, large trees. The Old Main is a beautiful stone building next to our performance venue. In addition to our performances of J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation, Tafelmusik players made contact with students in both places though performance master classes and visits to classes in other disciplines, as well as a visit to a high school. Given the academic nature of our audiences in both places, the section of the program concerning dress codes in Leipzig brought on much laughter, as university professors are referred to as “second class citizens” and students with master’s degrees as fourth class. Lawyers fall in between as third class…

Photo: Christopher Verrette
The Old Main, PennState University. Photo: Christopher Verrette

Tonight, the orchestra performs in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the Corporación del Centro de Bellas Artes, followed by a stop in Winter Park, Florida. Watch for more photos and updates!

We went to the movies! Or, What would Beethoven do?

Tafelmusik staff went to check out a new film at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema, titled “What would Beethoven do?”, part of the Music on Film series put on by The Royal Conservatory.

To find out a bit more about the film, check out the trailer:


What Would Beethoven Do? | New Documentary Teaser from What Would Beethoven Do on Vimeo.

We had a fiery and lengthy discussion after the film, about the state of classical music in general – here’s what some of our thoughts were!

First from Managing Director Will Norris:

“So many thoughts and talking points after watching ‘What would Beethoven do’. First, a reaffirmation of the power of music and the joy and happiness it brings – in the film most ably exemplified by Bobby McFerrin and the boundless enthusiasm of conductor Benjamin Zander. A lively debate ensued afterwards in the pub. Top of my mind after the concert was the issue of performance venues. Conventional performance spaces offer acoustic perfection but often accentuate that ‘fourth wall’, that divide between audience and Orchestra. Current-day concert presentation often does little to break that wall, with little to no interaction between performer and audience. Some of my most profound musical experiences have been in acoustically sub-par spaces but where I have been able to feel connected to and close to the performers, and I discovered chamber music by hearing it played in a pub. Conventional concert halls will always have a place, but should we be valuing other parts of the concert-going as much as we value acoustics? Should we be pressing for flexible performance spaces which allow for varied audience configurations? And lastly, a thought that we can never become complacent. It is so easy working for an orchestra just to follow the trodden path – but last night’s film was a reminder that we need to be constantly evangelical for our artform, and, as part of that evangelism, constantly questioning what we do, how we do it and searching out and grasping new opportunities for our music to be heard.”

Associate Director of Philanthropy Phil Stephens decided to look into some statistics:

There no lack of confusing statistics out there, but here are a couple of interesting ones:

“1808: A Beethoven grand public concert drew only from aristocracy and middle class, equaling no more than 2.5% of Viennese residents. LINK

2002: Classical Music Consumer Study said 16% of adults in the U.S. attended a classical music concert in the 12 months prior to the survey. LINK

Classical audiences seem to be getting younger and more diverse these days. If you‘re an orchestra going back to the same trough repeatedly with diminishing results, try diversification! Do not expect an audience to come to you.

Classical performers and administrators could benefit from a regular dose of modern music (yes, even pop), and perhaps should view music as wonderful entertainment more often. Help foster a culture of exploration and sharing, instead of pushing conformity and academics.”

From Tim Crouch, Senior Manager of Marketing & Audience Engagement:

“Having many friends who are composers, I find one of the most interesting topics from the film was the discussion over the definition of classical music. Depending on who you talk to, classical can mean so many different things. To those in the know, it’s a genre from a specific time-period. To newcomers, classical can be an overarching term for almost anything that’s not ‘pop’, sometimes associated with relaxing studying lists (though I’d argue classical music is anything but relaxing). 

In the end, it brings up the interesting exercise of a review of terminology. This may seem like semantics, but I think it’s important, as artists and arts administrators, to own what we do, with a strong focus of where we’ve come from and where we’re going. This may require us to reject static definitions of our genre, and all the connotations associated with those definitions. Traditions are important, but when they get in the way of music-making and connections with the audience, the art becomes a museum piece.

One thing I know is definite – what we consider to be western classical music/music of the European tradition is one of the most dynamic, ever-changing art forms, and acts like an incredible sponge, soaking in influences from around the world. If we can make even minuscule strides to convey this to classical naysayers, and reject decades of over-formalized connotations, I think we’ll have come a long way. For me, it starts with what we call ourselves.

PS For an interesting link on this subject, go here.” 

And finally from Peter Harte, Marketing Manager:

“I did thoroughly enjoy this film. I appreciate any piece of art that provokes discussion, educates, and prompts me to seek out others opinions to help justify my own. The big question asked is what are orchestras doing to engage new and younger audiences for a long period of time rather than just offering a one time “unique date experience”? I am not a musician myself, but through this film I could easily see the passion these musicians have, and the true love they have for their craft. But it made me wonder, why is it often difficult to see this while attending a concert? How do we break down this 4th wall from the stage and allow audiences to really see the spirit and intensity coming from these musicians? Yes, all important questions we ask ourselves time and time again.

A comment during the post-film Q&A that stood out to me was from a gentleman who was trying to compose a question about whether having DJ Scratch Bastid collaborate with a string quartet at the RCM was a one-time gimmick or indeed an innovative approach to liven up otherwise predictable repertoire. If the question had been presented more clearly it may have started a dialogue between us all about what exactly are orchestras committing to when these electronic DJs are placed on stage. I’ve seen or heard numerous orchestras incorporating electronic music or live DJs into their season programming, and generally you can see that it does brings a new audience and energy to the concert experience. However, these events may only occur once a year, and more often than not the orchestra and DJ are disconnected in their performance. It’s almost there, but not quite. Have any orchestras made a true leap of collaborating with multidisciplinary artists? Or are they simply throwing in unrelated disciplines of art to make the experience seem “cool”?

I can’t help but ask myself, why do we assume young people enjoy electronic music? And why do so many orchestras use this as the gateway to get new folks into their doors and excite them about orchestral music? Maybe the concert hall and the formal attire of our musicians needs to change to help break the high class reputation classical music has. Maybe we need more movies like Fantasia to help a new generation visualize and relate to what they are hearing. Or maybe an easy to digest explanation is needed as to why a piece of music is being performed, by this specific organization, right now, to help us understand its relevance.

I love that this film made me ask myself these questions and has sparked discussions between myself and my colleagues, and hopefully between you too. It’s definitely worth seeing.”

Over to you – what do you think? What would Beethoven do, were he alive today?