After 35 years under violinist Jeanne Lamon, the Baroque ensemble gets ready to welcome its second-ever music director

By Megan Westberg

Bassist Alison Mackay has been a member of Canadian period ensemble Tafelmusik for over 35 years. And she sounds utterly surprised when asked why she would have stayed for so long. “Oh,” she replies, her warm voice saturated with enthusiasm, “it’s the most wonderful organization to be a part of.” The next day, harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger, also a three-plus-decade veteran, sounds as if she’s never pondered the idea of existence without Tafelmusik before this moment. “That’s my life,” she says. “I’ve been there more than half of my time on this earth and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Maybe that’s the answer.”

This is perhaps to be expected from an orchestra whose 17 core members have, for the most part, come to the Toronto-based organization and stayed—most for more than a decade, and a surprising number for more than three. Much of that personnel stability seems attributable to the environment created by longtime music director, violinist Jeanne Lamon. She joined the fledging ensemble as the early-music movement in general was taking shape, and has guided the ensemble from those first experimental days to its present state: a world-renowned period orchestra and choir that present Baroque repertoire to audiences through innovative programming, international touring, recordings through its own record label, and a strong connection to its home city.

The 2016–17 season, however, marked the end of Lamon’s tenure with Tafelmusik. “I think at a certain point,” she says, “it’s good for an organization to get a shot of adrenaline, a change in direction, a new person.” Her successor, violinist Elisa Citterio, debuts as the orchestra’s second-ever music director on September 21, representing a big change for an ensemble that has built so much of its identity on its sense of stability. 

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Jeanne Lamon

Tafelmusik was founded by recorder player and oboist Kenneth Solway and his wife, bassoonist Susan Graves, in 1979. Lamon, a native New Yorker and Brandeis University graduate, became music director in 1981, and notes that as the organization grew, so did the esteem of the early-music movement in general. “It’s gone from being a fringe, kind-of-bohemian thing that the traditional musicians didn’t respect or understand at all—the orchestral, symphonic kind of world—and it’s gone from that to being completely, in a way, mainstream,” she says.

Tafelmusik benefitted from this “little revolution in the music world,” in addition to the support of some of the foremost early-music practitioners at the time, part of what Mackay calls “the first generation of pioneers.” Players in this first generation, which included Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Anner Bylsma, came typically from Holland, “a real gathering point for musicians studying early music at that time,” according to Nediger, and many of these players had already served as teachers to young Tafelmusik musicians: Lamon, Nediger, Solway, Graves, first cellist Christina Mahler, and violist and Tafelmusik choir director Ivars Taurins had all studied in Holland.

They came not only to mentor the new group, but to record as well. Mackay remembers, “There was a very early recording made with [soprano] Emma Kirkby, and early recordings with [cellist] Anner Bylsma, and people of that caliber showed a lot of faith in a sort of fledgling organization and helped us get off to a start.”

In many ways, the nature of that start still defines the character of the organization that persists today. “In the early years we all did everything, as in most young performing-arts organizations,” says Nediger. “Everybody had tasks to do to keep the thing running offstage as well as onstage. And that atmosphere of working together for a common goal stayed throughout—there was never any sense of Jeanne being the leader with a capital ‘L’.”

The idea that Lamon’s leadership style allows and encourages the talents of those around her to shine rises quickly to the top of any conversation about her tenure. It is collaboration, says Nediger, that has flourished throughout the organization under Lamon, and has allowed the orchestra, in turn, to flourish. “She never hesitated to put other people in the limelight,” says Mackay, who develops multi-media programs for the orchestra. Nediger’s passion—second to performing with her colleagues—lies in education, and she takes a leading role in the orchestra’s well-respected pre-professional training programs. Lamon offers these opportunities—and the chance to propose programs and music—to her players freely, leveraging their strengths and passions.

This philosophy is also reflected in Lamon’s approach in choosing musicians to fill Tafelmusik’s ranks. She firmly rejects the notion that music directors should select players who exhibit a willingness or ability to be molded. “You can’t be a great player and be a blank slate,” she says. “It doesn’t make any sense.” Of course, a player needs to show him or herself to be compatible with the group, and understand Baroque repertoire and style, but beyond that, she allows only the excellence of the player to be her guide.

“The best players have a strong personality and I welcome them, and people have said to me that that’s very unusual. And I can’t believe that’s unusual. I mean, what on earth are you looking for? I look for the best players and I’m not threatened by them.”

It may seem a bold idea for a music director to choose players who, according to Lamon at least, play better than she does regularly, but one gets the sense from even a brief conversation with Lamon that her friendly demeanor is underscored by strong convictions, especially when it comes to her ensemble’s sound. They may play ancient music on period instruments, but their sound isn’t dainty. Lamon strives for a sound that is immediate, present, alive. “I think we’re known for a pretty robust sound: pretty healthy, loud (some people say), strong playing,” Lamon says. “Some Baroque groups tend to pussyfoot a little bit. They play a little bit what I would call preciously.

“And we don’t. We just go for it.”

Part of the circumstance that has allowed the group to develop its distinctive sound has also presented a bit of an obstacle: its relative isolation in Toronto. In comparison to its European counterparts, Tafelmusik isn’t surrounded by any other period ensembles. Core Tafelmusik players don’t play in multiple Baroque orchestras—they are full-time Tafelmusik players. And while that situation has afforded Tafelmusik the space to develop its own unique sound, it can also be a barrier to the natural flow of new ideas that comes with playing in close proximity to other like-minded groups.

To deal with this challenge, Tafelmusik has always brought in guest directors, hoping they’ll bring new ideas with them. And many do, though in some cases, “it’s really that they have to adjust to us because we have such a strong personality by now,” says Lamon. “They have to do as the Romans do when they’re in Rome.”

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Tafelmusik’s new music director Elisa Citterio (left, photo by Monica-Cordiviola) and managing director William Norris (right)

Despite Lamon’s assessment that, due to its isolation, Tafelmusik has had “a slight tendency toward naval gazing,” the organization has shown remarkable forward thinking when it comes to programming and drawing in new audiences. In addition to its regular concert programming, which forms the backbone of its offerings, with special discounts and cocktail hours for under-35s, Tafelmusik has also been adding new ways to present its core repertoire to audiences through its Haus Musik and Close Encounters series. Managing director William Norris, who came to Tafelmusik in 2014 after success with London’s Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), has been leading the charge to both broaden Tafelmusik’s audiences, and also deepen the engagement of its regular audience.

Haus Musik, a late-night concert series in unconventional venues meant to bring in new audiences, is modeled after an OAE series called the Night Shift. “We thought about some of the reasons why someone wouldn’t come to a concert,” says Norris. “There’s price, there’s the atmosphere, there’s ‘can I bring a drink in?’—[it was about] removing some of the barriers to attendance.” Norris is taking a more theatrical tack in Toronto, due to one of the city’s unique artistic treasures: a thriving opera community. “Toronto has this amazing kind of indie-opera scene and we’re trying to tap into that a little bit by using some of the directors from that world to stage the Haus Musik concerts,” he says.

The results have been both positive and enlightening, from watching the audience members’ fascination with acoustic Baroque instruments playing in tandem with electronic music to their spontaneous level of engagement. The more intimate surroundings and casual atmosphere, with people standing or sitting on the floor, seem to inspire greater comfort reacting in a more demonstrative way. At the pilot Haus Musik concert, the audience “even started dancing in the last piece—it was a gigue—so that was fun,” says Norris.

Close Encounters, which, along with Haus Musik, will be in its second season this year, is, as Norris describes it, “really more for our existing audience, but for them to find new aspects to our work and deepen their engagement with us and get to know a different part of the repertoire.” Concerts this season are city-themed (Close Encounters in . . . Paris, for example), and take place in two venues on Saturday afternoons and Wednesday mornings.

Norris has also been working on a pilot program called the “Listening Club,” which is scheduled to roll out next season. It works a little like a book club—participants are provided a list of suggested listening, and then the group meets, along with members of academia and some Tafelmusik musicians, to discuss it. It’s just another audience-engagement experiment as the orchestra finds new ways to make itself accessible to audiences throughout Toronto.

That sense of experimentation, of flexibility, has been key to Tafelmusik’s success and will continue to be crucial, according to Norris. “I think having that flexibility will be increasingly important in the future because people’s tastes are changing, people’s lifestyles are changing, and we need to be adaptive to that in order to reach the audiences we want,” he says. “The world is a fast-changing place and we can’t ignore that.”

It was partially to do with another of Tafelmusik’s innovative programming efforts—and a significant part of the orchestra’s touring life—that drew Norris to Toronto. In 2009, the organization began producing multimedia concerts that tie its core Baroque repertoire to the music’s historical and cultural context, in turn making connections between that history and the present. Bassist Mackay develops these programs, the first of which was 2009’s Galileo Project, inspired by the 400th anniversary of Galileo first turning his telescope into the night sky. These programs integrate images with narration and unorthodox staging; because the orchestra performs these programs from memory, players are free to move throughout the venue, playing in balconies or surrounding the audience. “One thing that Jeanne realized early on,” says Mackay, “is that when you don’t have music stands, you’re not tied to performing on the stage.”

The award-winning Galileo Project paved the way for House of Dreams, Mackay’s next multimedia venture, which recreated five European rooms—all still in existence—that were known to house brilliant art collections and also host music performances. The rooms were photographed and filmed, and presented virtually onstage with high-definition images of the paintings provided by museums added digitally to the scene. “The idea of the show,” says Mackay, “was to give the present audience the feeling of what it would have been like to be a guest in one of those rooms in the 18th century.”

The success of these programs has led to two more: J.S. Bach, The Circle of Creation, which focuses on the artisan world involved in the realization of Bach’s inspiration, and Safe Haven, a program still in production, highlighting “the influence that refugee populations have on the culture of their host cities,” says Mackay. “A lot of it is going to be about the expulsion of French Huguenots under the reign of Louis XIV, and the influence that had on Baroque music.”

The orchestra has toured the world with these programs, opening up new opportunities to interact with groups of people whose interests intersect with Baroque music in unexpected ways. For example, in Australia, a local group of astronomers set up telescopes outside a Galileo Project performance so the exiting audience could take a look at the night sky as Galileo had. “It’s just another way of combining our music with something that makes it perhaps a little easier to have a handle on what we’re doing because it’s set in a kind of context that everyone can relate to,” Mackay says.

“Some Baroque groups tend to pussyfoot a little bit. They play a little bit what I would call preciously. And we don’t. We just go for it”.

It took three years from the time that Lamon announced her intention to step down for her replacement to be selected. Elisa Citterio, Italian violinist and early-music specialist, worked with the orchestra several times during this period, and her arrival is being met with much enthusiasm. Mackay, who was on the search committee, says, “We were looking for someone who would be very virtuosic and who would take us to new levels of excellence or virtuosity in our playing, but also somebody who would be very collaborative.”

Norris affirms that the search committee was looking for a brilliant musician, but that chemistry was key. “Tafelmusik is a very collaborative organization,” he says. “We have a music director, and ultimately they make all of the decisions, but it’s done within a collaborative environment, so someone who could work with that—that was very important. And Elisa has that.”

Citterio comes from both the orchestral and chamber-music worlds, and has served as concertmaster and soloist with the Accademia del Teatro alla Scala di Milano and as a member of the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano. Her discography includes more than 35 recordings, and she has co-chaired the Baroque violin-studies program at Civica Scuola di Musica Claudio Abbado in Milan for two seasons. Lamon, for her part, praises Citterio’s musicianship and thinks she’ll be a good fit. “She’s got the wisdom and the kindness and the musical insight, and she’s certainly got everything you need as a violinist times ten,” she says. 

Citterio stresses her appreciation of Tafelmusik’s unique, complex structure, and hopes to leverage its many advantages. “For me,” she says, “the key word in taking on this role is ‘collaboration.’ Of course, as music director I have the responsibility of making the final decisions, but I would like to think that the process of arriving at that point involves that spirit of sharing and dialogue between all the members.”

She’s led the ensemble in four “trial” projects so far in myriad styles and ensemble sizes, and has been impressed with the players’ musicianship and ability to react to her playing on the fly. “In the first program, I was so surprised to see the musicians paying meticulous attention to my comments and noting my observations in their parts. And in the second program, I had a lot of fun changing the dynamics spontaneously in concert: The musicians were completely ready to respond!” It is her hope that after taking the time to get to know each other better, their collective voice will be “defined by a very high technical level, but also deeply passionate playing.”

Fortunately, passion for the music doesn’t seem to be a problem at Tafelmusik. “We don’t have to work hard at it, I must say, to do performances that are engaging for the audience because we are so engaged with each other,” says Nediger. “We happen to love performing together and our audiences will always comment on that.

“We get onstage together and we are in our happy place.” 

For more of Elisa Citterio’s thoughts on her new role, read “Meet Elisa Citterio: Tafelmusik’s New Music Director.”

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