The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra community – musicians, administrators and audience – marked the end of an era Thursday night, as Jeanne Lamon began her last series of concerts as music director of the Toronto ensemble she turned into an international powerhouse. And the concert was full of the spirit of Lamon herself – joyful, committed, creative, generous.
Lamon is a fascinating artistic personality. She is warm without being sentimental, a powerful leader happy to stand a little in the shadows, a fiercely uncompromising musician with a ready smile on her face. A lavish souvenir program produced for the occasion of Lamon's retirement as music director contained many heartfelt messages of friendship and congratulation from Lamon's colleagues near and far – but the one that expressed for me the essence of Lamon's contribution to musical life in this city was from Sigiswald Kuijken, a leader in the early-music community, and Lamon's teacher. "You have done important work, you and your colleagues all these years, " Kuijken said. "Work that has made things different for many people."
And that work – creating the sound of the orchestra she has led for 33 years – was very much on display Thursday night. Jeanne's last concert as music director was a celebration of her long association with the orchestra. It began with a series of pieces the loyal and dedicated Tafelmusik audience selected themselves on line, and ended with a sort of suite that Lamon created from her own favourite Tafelmusik repertoire, seamlessly blending music from Monteverdi to Bach into a half-hour "quilt." In between, Tafelmusik performed short variations they themselves had composed in Lamon's honour on original themes by English composer Henry Purcell, a Tafelmusik favourite.
And from the first note, music by Vivaldi, the characteristic Tafelmusik sound – the Lamon sound – was clearly in evidence. Tafelmusik is a very tight band, incredibly disciplined and energetic, but full of joy at the same time. There are no wasted musical gestures in this orchestra, no unnecessary extravagance, but that just means that every note is tuned toward maximum emotional expression. In an evening of too many selections to name them all, it's worth noting how beautifully the Tafelmusik winds played all night. Oboists John Abberger and Marco Cera and bassoonist Dominic Teresi combined technical brilliance, emotional power and great teamwork over many different selections. And the compositions that the Tafelmusik musicians wrote for Lamon – 20 altogether – were fascinating. Some were baroque-ish in style, some quite modern, some playful, some serious. Tafelmusik includes contemporary music in its programs on a regular basis – every time, something very special is created by these additions, and Thursday night was no exception.
But the highlight of the evening was the suite of music that Lamon created as a sort of "greatest hits" package. And especially the selections by Bach that ended that suite. From the beautiful, intense, Air from the Third Orchestral Suite to a series of numbers from The St. Matthew Passion arranged for orchestra alone (including a meltingly beautiful Lamon solo on Erbarme Dich), to the fastest, liveliest, take-your-breath-away Third Brandenburg Concerto, this was Tafelmusik at its peak. A peak that Lamon has taken three decades to fashion.
But not by herself, as she is the first to mention. Lamon's collaborative instincts are legendary, and unique in the hierarchical world of classical music. Those instincts were in full view on Thursday, not just in the manner in which Lamon played with her colleagues, but in the generous comments she made about them throughout the concert.
And then, at concert's end, when she was presented with the de rigueur bouquet of flowers that always materializes after a Tafelmusik performance, Lamon put her violin down, untied the ribbon holding the bouquet together, and, in a final gesture of friendship, gave one of the flowers to each individual member of her orchestra. To the eight-months-pregnant violinist Christina Zacharias, she gave two.