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Tafelmusik Takes us on a Grand Tour

Trinty-St. Paul Centre
02/08/2012 -  & February 9, 10, 11, 12, 2012
House of Dreams: Various works by G. F. Handel, A. Vivaldi, J. P. Sweelinck, H. Purcell, M. Marais, J. S. Bach, G. P. Telemann
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra (Jeanne Lamon, Director)
Alison Mackay (Concept and script), Marshall Pynkoski (Stage Direction), Glenn Davidson (Production Designer), Raha Javanfar (Projections Designer)

(© Donald Lee)

With House of Dreams the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra has achieved another crowd-pleaser.

Alison Mackay (violone and double bass player with Tafelmusik since its inception in 1979) has devised a rich and engrossing evening taking the audience on a visual tour of five historic houses, with projected images of art works associated with each house, accompanied by relevant music selected from no less than 18 works by seven composers. A modern-day tourist (Blair Williams) guides us through all this with well-chosen anecdotes about each place.

The voyage begins in London’s Handel House with music, of course, by its famous one-time owner. Recent researches have discovered that Handel had a large art collection with works by the likes of Watteau and Canaletto. We are shown Watteau “conversation” pictures depicting theatrical dance while the orchestra plays dances from the opera Alcina, which had its final rehearsal in Handel’s house. The final image in this section of the concert is a Venetian scene by Canaletto, which leads us to Venice itself and the Palazzo Smith Mangilli-Valmarana on the Grand Canal. This palazzo also housed Canalettos and even appears in one of the painter’s views of the Grand Canal.

Another link between the two houses: when in Italy Handel used the palazzo as his mail drop. The palazzo’s owner, Joseph Smith, was the British Consul, and during his 70-year sojourn in Venice became a noted member of its cultural elite, commissioning works of art and even becoming the dedicatee of a play by Carlo Goldoni. Smith’s library became part of the founding collection of the British Museum Library, and his art collection was acquired by King George III and remains today in the Royal Collection. (You can see how one anecdote leads on to many others.) This section of the concert is accompanied by works by that most Venetian of composers, Antonio Vivaldi. One of Smith’s paintings was Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” and its image serves to lead the presentation to its next house in Delft, the Netherlands.

Jacob Dissius (1653-1695) ran a bookbindery and sales shop (the Golden ABC) in his diminutive house in central Delft. A restaurant with the same name now occupies the space. He also owned no fewer than 21 paintings by Vermeer (there are only 34 known Vermeers in the world today). He even had some in his basement kitchen. Anglophilia was rampant in Holland at the time, as the country’s stadtholder had become England’s king, William III. We heard music from his court composer, Henry Purcell, and a harpsichord solo, Engelse Fortuin, a set of variations on the English tune Fortune my foe by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

The first house featured in the second half of the program is the Palais Royale in Paris in the time of Phillipe, Duc d’Orleans in the early 1700s. He had a collection of some 500 paintings by the likes of Titian, Tintoretto, Correggio, many others. Many featured scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, one episode from which (the marriage of Alcyone and Ceyx) became the subject of Marin Marais’ opera Alcyone - which was premiered in the Duke’s own theatre in his palais, the forerunner of today’s Opéra National de Paris. The suite from the opera, with its rampaging Tempeste movement, accompanied by the dramatic images, is the climax of the evening.

The Marais opera’s legendary tale features a visit to a mysterious realm called the House of Dreams - thus the title for this evening’s entertainment.

The final house visited is the Bose House in Leipzig, right next door to the St. Thomas School where Johann Sebastian Bach and his family lived. The Bose family had a significant art collection and were on friendly terms with the Bachs, who no doubt performed in the music room at the top of the house. (The house now has exhibits devoted to J. S. Bach.) Three works by Bach accompanied this section, including the Allegro movement from the Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV 1043 which was given an absolutely scorching performance by the orchestra.

We are then shown a reprise of the art images in reverse order while the orchestra performs the overture from Telemann’s Wassermusik, then a return to the opening Handel pieces. We find that our erudite narrator has dozed off in his comfy armchair - until he wakens with a start and quotes lines from Bottom’s awakening scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The orchestra, as expected, was up to its usual high professional standard. Extra dynamism is added to the staging by having the players stand while playing (except for those who have to be seated ). The effect is that of a group of people engaged in lively, even heated, conversations, at times in small groups, and at other times all together. It seems a bit odd to hire a stage director for an orchestral concert (Opera Atelier’s Marshall Pynkoski) but in this case it really pays off. And of course this isn’t a concert so much as what the late Ed Sullivan would have called “a really big show”.

Practically every member of the ensemble had at least one solo moment, such as Lucas Harris with his giant baroque lute in the largo from Vivaldi’s Lute Concerto, RV 93. Other Vivaldi selections featured the bassoon, oboes, and cellos. Charlotte Nediger took the spotlight in the Sweelinck piece. Even when not playing each performer actively listens to what is being played instead of passively awaiting his or her turn.

This production is certain to be taken on tour, just as the previous such production, The Galileo Project (with music by 13 composers) which has been performed in Asia and is about to be taken to seven cities in Australia and New Zealand. In fact, House of Dreams has already toured in a sense, as it opened out of town in Banff, Alberta on February 3.

Michael Johnson



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