Memories of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir

By Peter Mahon, countertenor

As the longest serving member of the choir (hands up all those who remember me from the 1980s!), I have been asked to write about my memories of the choir over the last 35 years. As you might imagine, there are many from which to choose over that length of time. The problem is to decide which ones to talk about.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, 2001
Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, 2001

I could mention the growth and development of the choir from an essentially amateur ensemble with a quartet of paid section leaders to a fully professional group.

There was our first recording in 1987, for Hyperion Records with soprano Emma Kirkby. We recorded in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene … in February, in the freezing cold because the heat was turned off to stop the pipes banging. We were all wearing winter coats, hats, and scarves. Not pleasant, but it was worth it.

Vivaldi Cantatas, Concertos & Magnificat, 1987
Vivaldi Cantatas, Concertos & Magnificat, 1987

There was the incredible expansion of our performance schedule around the same time. I was working in the office and got to witness it first-hand. The demand for tickets was like an avalanche. In very short order we went from two concerts per project to five. We went to Massey Hall for the Sing-Along Messiah for the first time. Our first year we had 1,500 people and of course, now we sell out with scalpers outside the hall.

We have been fortunate to work with many great guest conductors: Gustav Leonhardt, Andrew Parrott, Richard Egarr, Sigiswald Kuijken, Nicholas McGegan, Ton Koopman, Bruno Weil, and Kent Nagano, to name a few.

Kuijken worked with us in 2002 while the Salt Lake City Olympics were going on. I will always remember the look of puzzlement on his face when he saw everyone on stage smiling near the end of the Sunday afternoon concert. What he could not see was Elly Winer standing at the back of the hall with his hands held up showing the final score of the gold medal hockey game, Canada 5 – USA 2.

After the concert, everyone rushed downstairs to the men’s dressing room. As the guys were undressing, the ladies all barged in to watch the medal presentation on the small b&w television that we had brought in. As the Canadian flag was being raised, in various stages of undress, we sang one of the finest renditions of O Canada that you will ever hear.

For many reasons the choir does not do much touring. However, we have been to Montreal twice recently. First, to sing the Bach B-Minor Mass with the orchestra, conducted by Kent Nagano. It was during the month of January and we got to experience the kind of winter that we don’t normally get in Toronto. It was 25 below zero for the entire week. We were very glad that we could walk from the hotel to the hall without going outside.

A couple of years later, Maestro Nagano paid the choir the singular honour of inviting us to take part in the opening concert of Montreal’s new Maison Symphonique in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with OSM and OSM Chorus.

It was quite a change from one of our early tour in the mid-1980s. We went to Michigan to sing two performances of Messiah. In Detroit, we sang in a 2,000-seat hall. The most memorable part of the performance,  and indeed of the tour, was the rapturous applause that we received at the end of the concert from our audience of 23 people. The concert promoters probably should have spent a little more on marketing. We have certainly come a long way since then.

As a new parent in 1981, I would not have imagined that I would still be singing with Tafelmusik in 2016. It has afforded me my favourite memory, namely the pride and pleasure of performing with two of my children and my son-in-law, each of whom has been a member of the choir in recent years.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir members, 2016/17. L-R: Paul Oros and Joel Allison, bass; Peter Mahon, alto; Daniel Webb, tenor; Meghan Moore, soprano.
Tafelmusik Chamber Choir members, 2016/17. L-R: Paul Oros and Joel Allison, bass; Peter Mahon, countertenor; Daniel Webb, tenor; Meghan Moore, soprano. Photo: Sian Richards

Finally, it has been a great pleasure to get to know many of you through the years and an honour to perform for you. It is always a special moment to walk out on stage at the beginning of a Tafelmusik concert, being greeted with your warm applause and the friendly smiles on so many familiar faces. I look forward to forging more happy memories for all of us in the years to come.

Join us for Let Us All Sing!, November 5-6 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Tickets are available here.

Behind the Musik: Let Us All Sing!

Here are the official program notes for Let Us All Sing! Tafelmusik Chamber Choir at 35

Download the Program Notes | Download the Program Listing

PROGRAM NOTES
by Charlotte Nediger

Handel Laudate pueri

George Frideric Handel arrived in Rome from his native Saxony at the age of 22, in 1707, and was immediately embraced by the Romans. Although he had come to Italy with opera foremost in his mind, the fact that his sojourn began in Rome, where opera was forbidden by papal decree, meant that the first music he composed in Italy was in fact sacred choral music. It is extraordinary, and proof of Handel’s remarkable talents, that the young Lutheran was able to procure so swiftly the enthusiastic patronage of three cardinals (Ottoboni, Pamphili, and Colonna) and a marquis (Ruspoli)—and that he was permitted to play the organ at one of the great churches of Mother Rome soon after his arrival.

Cardinal Colonna was the first to commission music from “il Sassone,” asking him to provide music for a very Catholic occasion, the 1707 festival of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, celebrated each July in the Roman church of the Carmelite order, S. Maria di Monte Santo. The feast was in honour of the Virgin Mary as patroness of the Carmelites, and the major services were First Vespers on the eve, and Mass and Second Vespers on the day. The music, which includes the virtuosic Laudate pueri for soprano, choir, and orchestra, was exceptionally lavish and was entirely financed by Colonna.

Steffani Stabat mater

Agostino Steffani
Agostino Steffani

While in Rome, Handel would undoubtedly have met Agostino Steffani, who was in the city in 1708/09 and sang in concerts at Ottoboni’s palace. Steffani’s earliest reputation was as a gifted boy soprano, taking him from his native Venice to the Electoral court in Munich at age thirteen. He did not pursue a singing career after his voice broke (the Roman performances twenty years later were an exception). He instead took up composition, and all of his music is marked by a strong sense of vocality, and a compelling expression of the text, undoubtedly informed by his early experience as a singer. Vocal music dominates his worklist, including several operas written for posts held in Munich, Hanover, and Düssseldorf. Steffani’s German employers recognized another talent in their court composer, sending him on diplomatic missions, many of a rather clandestine nature. By the turn of the century, his duties were mainly political. He had been ordained as priest in Munich in 1680, and his various diplomatic efforts led to a series of increasingly important appointments in the church, culminating in that of Apostolic Vicar in northern Germany, based in Hanover. He returned to music on occasion, seemingly often as solace when political work proved frustrating or disappointing.

At the end of his life there was particular interest in his music from England. His previous employer in Hanover had become George I, and took several Steffani scores with him (they are still in the Buckingham Palace library). The Academy of Vocal Music (later known as the Academy of Ancient Music) named him honorary president, and in return, he sent them a number of old and new compositions: among the latter, a setting of the Stabat mater. Steffani himself described the Stabat mater as his last and greatest work, and it is often cited as a musical representation of his religious fervour. In our first exploration of the works of Steffani on the Tafelmusik stage, we excerpt six movements of this beautiful work.

Lully Chaconne from Amadis

Louis XIV’s powerful court composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, devoted a great deal of time and care to creating a truly French opera. From 1673 until his death in 1687, he composed an annual opera, most of which were settings of livrets by his close collaborator, Philippe Quinault. The verse, painstakingly and masterfully set by Lully, is given more prominence than in Italian opera, as is the chorus and the dance. Many of the operas end with the beautiful spectacle of a grand chaconne or passacaille, music built over a simple repeating bass line that starts with an extended ballet, to which is then added chorus and soloists in alternation. The chaconne that ends Amadis is a wonderful example, and its text “Chantons tous en ce jour” inspired the title of this week’s choral celebration. Amadis is one of three operas by Lully and Quinault on a chivalric rather than mythological theme, apparently on the advice of the king himself. In Amadis, the fidelity of Amadis and Oriane, mirrored in the lovers Florestan and Corisande, is tested in a fantastical tale, complete with good and bad sorcerers and sorceresses. Love, of course, prevails in the end.

The costumes for Amadis, designed by Jean Bérain, inspired a fashion for the “amadis” sleeve: a close-fitting sleeve, sometimes with a slightly puffed shoulder, ending in a tight, buttoned cuff at the wrist.

Rameau In convertendo Dominum

According to the baroque French lexicographer Sébastien de Brossard, “motet” is the name given to “all pieces written on Latin Texts on any subject whatsoever, a musical composition which is fully figured and enriched with all that is finest in the art of composition.” The grand motet, for solo voices, choir, and orchestra, was a staple of the Concert Spirituel, a Parisian concert series meant to provide entertainment during Lent and on religious holidays when the opera was closed. The surviving autograph score of Rameau’s In convertendo Dominus, a setting of Psalm 126, was prepared for three performances at the Concert Spirituel in 1751. Jean-Philippe Rameau was at the height of his career as the leading opera composer in Paris, and the news of the upcoming motet performances kept “all Paris occupied with this novelty for fifteen days.” In the end, his colleagues were dismayed that he deigned to present an “old motet of about 40 years ago.” Indeed, the original version of In convertendo is thought to have been composed as early as 1713, and performed in 1717 in Clermont-Ferrand for ceremonies celebrating the installation of a new bishop. Although pieces composed 40 years ago are still considered quite “modern” today, in the eighteenth century they were veritable antiques. The criticism, however, was quite shallow. Although the score of the original version has not survived, it is clear from the 1751 manuscript that Rameau did extensive revisions, rewriting entire sections, and imbuing the work with many of the instrumental and vocal colours found in his “modern” operas.

Zelenka Missa dei Filii

The Bohemian Jan Dismas Zelenka first arrived in Dresden in 1710 to take up the job as double-bass player in the renowned court orchestra. His talents as composer were soon recognized, and the Elector sent him for an extended period of study with Fux in Vienna, appointing him as composer of church music upon his return to Dresden. The Catholic court church in Dresden was established in 1708, when the Elector transformed the former opera house into the Katholische Hofkirche. His Protestant subjects were eventually drawn to the splendour of the music at the church, written in the virtuoso Italian style popular at the court, and sung and played by the leading musicians of the day. The Missa dei Filii, possibly an incomplete work with settings of only the Kyrie and Gloria, is Zelenka at his best, a work full of complex counterpoint, lyricism, and exuberant virtuosity, and a fitting finale to this week’s celebrations.

© C. Nediger 2016


PROGRAM LISTING

Directed by Ivars Taurins
Sherezade Panthaki, soprano
Philippe Gagné, tenor
Jonathan Woody, bass-baritone

GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL 1685–1759
Laudate pueri (Rome, c.1706)
Sherezade Panthaki, soloist

AGOSTINO STEFFANI 1654–1728
Stabat mater, excerpted (Hanover, 1724)
Michele DeBoer, Richard Whittall & Cory Knight, soloists

JEAN-BAPTISTE LULLY 1632–1687
Chaconne from Amadis “Chantons tous” (Paris, 1684)
Sherezade Panthaki: Corisande
Philippe Gagné: Un Héros
Jonathan Woody: Florestan

INTERMISSION

JEAN-PHILIPPE RAMEAU 1683–1764
In convertendo Dominus (Clermont-Ferrand, 1717/Paris, 1751)
Sherezade Panthaki, Philippe Gagné & Jonathan Woody, soloists

JAN DISMAS ZELENKA 1679–1745
Gloria, from Missa dei Filii (Dresden, 1740–41)
Michele Deboer, Simon Honeyman, Cory Knight & Joel Allison, soloists

Join us for Let Us All Sing!, November 2-6 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Tickets are available here.