There once was a time when you didn’t go to Wal-Mart to hear Christmas music. You went to church. We called that time the entire history of Western civilization.
So it was fitting that it was in a church – Trinity-St. Paul’s at Bloor and Spadina – that Toronto’s 2012 Christmas music extravaganza kicked off, with a concert by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ivars Taurins. However, the homely but stolid Trinity-St. Paul’s can hardly have been a match for the opulent 17th century Parisian church in which the music we heard was first presented – music by a contemporary of Louis XIV, Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
The broad style of music we call baroque originated in Italy, at a time when national rivalry in the arts was as pronounced as it was in war, diplomacy and commerce. Charpentier was a French composer who studied in Rome, and was thus noted for his ability to marry Italian and French aspects of his musical style. By and large these stylistic quirks, essential in their day, have been eroded by time, but one can still hear in Charpentier a composer employing diverse musical means, to create a sensibility far different from our own.
Tafelmusik presented two works by Charpentier, his In nativitatem Domini canticum, written for the season, and his Messe à 8 voix et instruments, not specifically written for Christmas, but a possible seasonal musical choice in the Paris of the late 1600s. The In navitatem was a charming, pastoral piece, like so much Christmas music since, reminding us of the tale that is the essence of the Christmas narrative. Shepherds, angels, wise men, the stars, a stable – the Christmas story is simple and homespun, for all its theological heft.
The Mass was a grander affair, full of antiphonal effects (the choir is split in two, singing in response to itself), small orchestral groupings, soloists, the full band – the widest range of musical possibilities reflecting the wide range of emotions and sentiments that make up the text. In both works, Charpentier joins the drama and tone-painting of the Italian baroque with the subtle harmonic patina of the French.
And the Tafelmusik Choir and Orchestra were up to the challenge of both aspects of this older musical language. Ivars Taurins has honed his choir into an ensemble that not only has a beautiful blend of voices, but one that reflects his personal, dramatic approach to music.
Aggressive attack, clear articulation, powerful sweep of line – the Tafelmusik Choir has all of these. If one lamented the fact that Charpentier allowed the choir less of an opportunity to show off their chops, they made up for it by a balancing of drama and tonal colour that was quite beautiful and satisfying. The soloists that stepped out of the chorus in both works did their job admirably – I especially enjoyed the tiny duets of sopranos Hélène Brunet and Michele DeBoer.
And the Tafelmusik Orchestra provided a fine accompaniment, especially in those orchestral parts of the Nativity piece that represented wordless, musical descriptions of the Christmas story. Charpentier’s orchestral depiction of the night of the nativity was remarkably modern and effective for the late 1600s. And, although it doesn’t get much mention, the bass line trio of Susie Napper’s gamba, Lucas Harris’s theorbo, and Charlotte Nedegger’s organ provided a wonderful ground for the evening’s music. If an army travels on its stomach, a baroque orchestra travels on its continuo. And Tafelmusik travelled far and wide on Wednesday night.
Tafelmusik French Baroque Christmas continues through Sunday; www.tafelmusik.org.