It may seem strange to say so, but the freshest, liveliest, hippest performances in town these days are in the world of classical music. By far.
If you want your music vital, well-played, human and immediate, forget the staged robotics of a Beyoncé or Rihanna, or the manufactured excitement of a Justin Timberlake 10 years past his due date, or a David Bowie 30 years past his. Pop music used to be a place where musicians engaged their audiences. No more. If you want that kind of experience today, as crazy as it may seem, you should be heading to the Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre at Bloor and Robert Street to catch the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra's current show.
Tafelmusik's latest offering, A Night in Madrid, features Australian violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch, playing her instrument and leading the orchestra in a program of Baroque and classical music by composers associated with Spain. It was a bit of a shock to see someone other than Jeanne Lamon occupying the leader's place on Wednesday night, but we better get used to it, because in a year or so Lamon will be relinquishing the spot she's occupied for more than 30 years as music director of the orchestra. All I can say is that if Wallfisch is interested in the job (or even if she isn't), someone should be begging her to take it.
What interested me most about Wallfisch was her generosity as a colleague and performer. She's a wonderful player in her own right, and her many solo efforts throughout the evening were beautifully shaped and delivered, with a virtuoso's care for detail. But it was Wallfisch trading licks with Tafelmusik stalwart Aisslinn Nosky, encouraging Allen Whear's solo cello offerings, or insisting her wind section take a well-deserved bow at the end of a Boccherini Concerto Grande that were equally impressive.
The Tafelmusik Orchestra is a world-class ensemble every time they perform, but Wednesday night there was something special in the air. You could feel the musical excitement and joy as the orchestra, most of whom were standing, leaned into their music. They brought it to life, looking at and encouraging each other, establishing connections right and centre. The music they were playing may have been 250 years old, but who cares? The experience was so immediate and vital, it was charged with the electricity of the present.
The last half of Wednesday’s program was devoted to music by Luigi Boccherini, an eighteenth-century Italian composer who worked most of his career in Spain, and it was filled with many of the sounds of that still exotic country. In the composer's Musica notturna, a sound portrait of a Madrid night, we had cellists holding their instruments in their lap, strumming them like giant guitars, along with evocations of street singers, drums and a night march that faded beautifully into a Madrid midnight. In Boccherini's Introduction and Fandango, the orchestra was joined by two Spanish dancers, Esmeralda Enrique and Paloma Cortes, who brought down the house with their stunningly beautiful performances, complete with castanets.
But as enjoyable as these novelties were, it was the first half of the concert, which presented more conventional Baroque and classical fare, that was almost more thrilling. For years we've believed that you had to have a well-educated taste to enjoy the classics, which is why Wednesday's audience was typical – knowledgeable, familiar, older. But when music is presented to you with as much verve as it was, by players who are decades younger than their audiences, by the way, completely immersed in their performances, you don't need to know anything about fugue or counterpoint or sonata form to have a valid musical experience. You need to do what audiences, of all genres, have done for centuries – appreciate virtuosity when it's presented to them, enjoy the craft of fine music-making at its highest level, and most importantly, allow music to speak to their hearts.
Tafelmusik isn't the only classical group operating on this level in this city, by any means. But A Night in Madrid reminded me of how attractive and hip this music has become, without meaning to, or wanting to, by simply being itself. In a world where pop music is on the wane, the classics shine with surprising brightness.