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If there was ever a concert I would love to go back to for a second listen, it would be last night’s concert  by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir at Koerner Hall. As exciting and rewarding as it was to hear once, it was clear that there was such great music embodied in it that a return visit would be equally rewarding. It repeats tonight and tomorrow (May 11 and 12). It goes without saying that both choir and orchestra were superb. Led by Chamber Choir Director Ivars Taurins, the music had a celebratory and dramatic fervor. Taurens’s energy was palpable.

In a pre-concert chat, alto Kate Helson  of the Chamber Choir delivered a not-to-be missed talk about the two composers and their works featured on the program. Jan Dismas Zelenka and Johann Sebastian Bach were contemporaries working as church composers in Leipzig and Dresden respectively. They knew and influenced each other. The two cities are more than a hundred kilometers apart, but they made the journey to give organ recitals or to discuss musical matters. Bach must have been quite jealous of Zelenka’s resources of first-rate singers and instrumentalists from all over the continent. I was particularly intrigued by Hilson’s reference to the influence of Martin Luther’s writings on Bach’s Magnificat. Hilson brought musicologist’s insights to the evening with her clever and engaging approach.

The program began with Zelenka’s Missa Divi Xaverii, ZWV 12, written in 1729 to mark the occasion of the feast day of St. Francis Xavier. The dance-like opening of the ‘Kyrie’ set the tone for the mass. There was certainly no piety like a Palestrina ‘Kyrie’ or even the serious splendour of the opening of Bach’s B Minor Mass. This mass was a celebration. With four trumpets (the court of Dresden boasted twelve), timpani, transverse flutes and oboes, nothing was spared to give the music a dance quality and joyful spirit. This is not to say that there weren’t moments of sublime beauty. The ‘Christe Eleison’, with soprano soloist Jana Miller providing tender melismatic twists and turns, expressed a more intimate reflection. The violin obligato was an apt counterpoint to the aria.

Throughout the fifty-minute mass, there were choruses, solo arias, duets and a quartet interspersed among the work’s fourteen sections. Internationally recognized soloists included soprano Jana Miller, mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle and tenor Colin Ainsworth who brought their splendid voices, musicianship and sense of baroque style to their roles. Members of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir with solo roles were baritone Keith Lam, soprano Emma Hannan, counter-tenor Richard Whittall and tenor Cory Knight.

As impressive as the Zelenka mass, the program’s title and main work was reserved for the second half of the concert. Bach’s Magnificat BMW 243 is one of his great choral masterpieces. The opening orchestral introduction was like the preceding Zelenka mass, an uplifting expression of joy. Three trumpets, timpani, oboe and flute joined the strings and continuo. When the choir entered, their virtuosic clarity and  explosion of the jubilant chords brought goosebumps. Composed in 1723 and performed on Christmas day in his first year in his post in Leipzig, the work was revised 9 years later, no doubt influenced by Zelenka and his interest in Dresden as a destination for both his oldest son and himself.

I enjoyed the variety of textures and colours in the various choruses, duet, trio and arias. ‘Quia respexit’ contained a beautiful oboe line to compliment the soprano solo. Later, ‘Et misericordia’ felt lovingly merciful with the alto/tenor duet along with strings and flute accompaniment. ‘Fecit potentiam’ was another virtuosic display of counterpoint for the choir that rose to an intense homophonic climactic conclusion with full orchestra.

Throughout, one couldn’t but be impressed by the musical subtleties and the dramatically explosive climaxes. Both orchestra and choir were stunning. Elisa Citterio, Tafelmusik’s Music Director, led the orchestra with impeccable playing. Newly appointed double bass player Pippa Macmillan took over the position left vacant by the retirement of Alison Mackay. I was overwhelmed by the quality of the choir. It was well-blended, accurate in the rapid melismatic passages, and incredibly powerful with just twenty voices. The alto section with three countertenors among the five in the section provided an intense and distinctive sound. Taurins continues to put together a choir of superb quality. It was impressive that five of the outstanding soloists came from within the choir.

This concert will be repeated tonight, May 11 at 8pm and tomorrow May 12 at 3:30pm at Koerner Hall. The pre-concert chat begins one hour before the concert. 

Chamber Music Choir Director Ivars
Taurins; Photo credit: Tafelmusik

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir; Photo credit: Tafelmusik

Tafelmusik’s Orchestra and Chamber Choir combine to give a stunning performance of Bach and Zelenka​!

​​by David Richards
oronto ON May 11th 2019