by Patrick Jordan, viola
The vast majority of the music we perform in Tafelmusik is from Europe in the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries, a world dominated by royalty, birthright, and the rigid definition of society by class. We are, in all sorts of ways, trying to both understand that time, aesthetically, culturally, and socially, and also make that music relevant to the world that we live in today.
Sometimes, a context for those aims presents itself, unbidden. Her Excellency, Mme Payette chose all of the music that was to be a part of her installation this past Monday, October 2nd. The range of performers was wide, inclusive, and inspiring. Members of Tafelmusik were invited to take part because the new Governor General was once a member of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, an experience that she herself has characterized as transformative. Upon reflection, the ceremony was also one of the most eighteenth century experiences of my performing career!
Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, a contemporaneously significant if now largely forgotten composer and Kapellmeister of the second half of the eighteenth century (and great pal of Haydn and Mozart, both), wrote an autobiography in 1799, his last and sixtieth year. Amongst the tidbits of his recounts of daily life as a musician is the avuncular advice to young violinists (and I rely upon my memory here), “Before going to sleep at night, the young virtuoso is strongly advised to check the strings on the violin; if one should be found to be fraying, change it forthwith. Supposing the Prince demand it, and should you be called upon to perform the next morning at 6 a.m., better to have let the new string stretch for those hours, to ensure the purity of your intonation.”
Unlike Dittersdorf, as artists today, we enjoy immense autonomy — as a general rule, the audience waits for us to take the stage, not the other way around. Monday’s performance was very much at the command of the powers that be, and I can’t say I have felt that so intensely before. Tafelmusik’s position on the day was to play the first movement of Mozart’s Divertimento in D major, K.136 (no second repeat, we had to be done in +/- 4 minutes and 15 seconds) immediately after the address of our Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, and before Her Excellency Mme Payette’s first address as the new Governor General of Canada. Not a bad spot! But not a spot that offered a great deal of flexibility.
During the ceremony, we were again, with all the other performers, in the holding room until we were taken to the green room. Our rehearsal the day before had not included the 21-gun salute being fired by howitzers on Parliament Hill, nor the shaking of the glass in the windows on our walk upstairs! I am not so accustomed to such displays of power, which would have routinely accompanied the presence of dignitaries in the eighteenth century.
Immediately after we played, we were taken back to the green room. It was from there, via closed circuit TV, that we heard Her Excellency’s first official address. Her messages of inclusion, striving to achieve, working as a team, and making decisions based on evidence to create the best possible world for us all were genuinely inspiring. At the end of the ceremony, all of the performers were asked to wait in the green room until Her Excellency Mme Payette and the Prime Minister, his wife, and the Minister of Heritage, Mélanie Joly, had the opportunity to greet us. We had been informed of the proper protocol for addressing the dignitaries, and had all practised up in advance. When they joined us (we were given a ten-minute warning then a three-minute countdown), the day took a very welcome giant step forward into Canada in the twenty-first century. I tried to squeeze in the “correct” address but didn’t really have an opportunity because each of them was so warm and direct. Her Excellency Mme Payette wanted to know if any of us present had been in the orchestra when she sang in the choir (no, I missed her by one year). Elisa Citterio, our new Music Director was next to me on the receiving line with her fourteen-month old daughter in her arms — Olivia was definitely a hit!
I truly wish that everyone in the orchestra and choir could have been part of this, but that was not to be. I know it would have meant a great deal to many of them, especially the people who have been here for even longer than I. Beth Anderson, our Director of Artistic Administration and Operations, was lucky enough to join us on this adventure. On the bus ride away from Parliament Hill, she remarked that she found it interesting that not one of the performers had actually been born in Canada. For a moment, I thought “That’s terrible!” but it quickly dawned on me that here we were, a group of high-achieving performers who have come together with the goal of creating a powerful team for good. Wasn’t that a big part of the inspiring message from Her Excellency?
I am fond of the notion that we are all becoming ourselves in the context of a world that is changing around us. I suppose I am still “becoming Canadian” like everyone around me, and last Monday’s experience was a particularly proud and inspiring part of that journey.