Jeanne Lamon and I are having a slight disagreement. We’re sitting in her tiny office at Tafelmusik headquarters in Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church on Toronto’s Bloor Street West. I’m here, in advance of her final set of concerts as music director, to discuss her 33-year career with the baroque orchestra, one of the most remarkable tenures in Canadian music.
“You obviously have a lot of ambition.” I say.
“I don’t,” she politely but firmly interjects.
“You must have,” I insist.
“I do not,” she insists right back.
We both laugh, and finally agree that if you replace the word “ambition” with “a commitment to excellence,” we can find common ground.
The exchange offers an insight into the personality of Lamon as she prepares to step down as full-time music director of the baroque orchestra she joined in 1981 and has led to worldwide prominence: Her last official concerts in that role are at the Bach Festival in Leipzig, Germany, in June. She is a shy person, but not a retiring one. She knows what she wants, and what she believes in, but is not afraid to collaborate with others in the pursuit of her artistic aims.
“I’m probably very selfish in the sense that I’ve always wanted to surround myself with people who are stimulating, people who have good minds, people who are musically interesting, opinionated and accomplished,” says Lamon, 64. “That might sound like an obvious thing, but I’m not sure it’s generally the case. Some directors weigh the balance between someone who is excellent and someone who is passive enough to be malleable to his or her wishes.”
That has not been the way of Lamon, who is also a violinist with Tafelmusik. “Being open has been the right thing for Tafelmusik. It has defined our culture: We have a very collaborative way of working, very different from most baroque orchestras. I have to come into any artistic discussion well prepared and with an extremely clear vision. That gets us started on the right track, but after that people can react. It just makes it better.”
Her commitment to collaboration extends beyond rehearsals. Anyone who has attended a Tafelmusik concert knows how generously and evenly Lamon distributes the many solos to her colleagues. (“Keeps them practising,” she notes with a twinkle.) And it was her suggestion to bassist Alison Mackay, a long-time Tafelmusik stalwart, to come up with a more inventive program for a school performance that eventually led to some of Tafelmusik’s greatest triumphs – The Galileo Project, The Four Seasons, A Cycle of the Sun among them – now famous around the world. “I knew Alison had that kind of range of knowledge. I thought, ‘I wonder if she wants to put together something?’ ” Lamon recalls.
It was the vision of Tafelmusik’s founders, Kenneth Solway and Susan Graves, that first attracted Lamon, a New York native, to Toronto. Then 31 and a graduate of Brandeis University, she had a growing reputation as a soloist in those early days of the authentic-instrument movement – which aims to revive the sound that baroque music would have had in its own time – and was invited as guest director in Tafelmusik’s first season.
“I had a sister who had moved to Toronto a couple of years earlier, so when they invited me, I said, ‘Okay, worst-case scenario, I’ll have a visit with my sister for a few days and that’s that. Or best-case scenario, this turns into something interesting,” she recalls. “Kenny and Susan had a vision for Tafelmusik of making a world-class baroque orchestra in Toronto – that was unthinkable at the time.”
But it was a challenge Lamon relished. There is a picture of the 11-member Tafelmusik ensemble in 1981, soon after she joined the group. (Today they sometimes have twice as many musicians onstage.) Alongside her are still-key members of the orchestra – Charlotte Nediger, Ivars Taurins, Christina Mahler, Mackay – looking young, excited, supremely confident that music lovers would welcome authentic performance.
And welcome it they did. Audiences in Toronto and around the world – Carnegie Hall in March; Japan last November – have easily accepted what were once the revolutionary stylistic innovations of groups such as Tafelmusik. Lamon realizes that there are now different artistic challenges ahead.
“When we were young, we thought Tafelmusik was us – but now it’s bigger than us. And the younger generation of the orchestra is stepping up to the plate and putting their heart and soul into it, not just onstage but behind the scenes. We need to transfer that sense of ownership to the younger members of the group. Especially with our newly renovated hall” – this past fall saw the unveiling of a significant acoustic facelift of the group’s main performance space at Trinity St. Paul’s – “which opens up new acoustic and artistic possibilities for us, there are new challenges ahead, new areas to conquer.”
While Lamon will not be leading the charge as music director, she is not leaving the orchestra. Until her successor is named, she will be making artistic decisions when needed. And as both soloist and conductor, she will lead two programs next year, and is heavily involved in Tafelmusik’s Baroque Summer Institute, which offers intensive instruction for students from around the world. “My role will be in training the next generation of players, to assure the future of Tafelmusik,” says Lamon, who also teaches at the University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Music.
Her changing role hasn’t quite hit her yet, but she knows it will. “Every year at this time, the season ends. And then in September, it all starts up again. So when it doesn’t start up the same way, that’s when I’ll know. But I’m very confident about the future of the orchestra, no matter who the new leader might be. They’re still going to play the way they play.”