In Toronto at the dawn of the 1980s, a little baroque chamber group with four core players was just starting to make some waves on the city’s nascent early-music scene. Then in blew a hurricane called Jeanne Lamon, a dynamic young feminist from New York, wielding a fiery baroque violin and animated with a passion for the music of the preclassical era.
A decade later, Ms. Lamon had led Toronto’s Tafelmusik into the ranks of the world’s best baroque orchestras. By then a crack 11-member ensemble, it was touring extensively in North America and Europe, making its first foray into Asia and had just inked a lucrative recording deal with Sony Classical. Ms. Lamon, however, was only getting started. She would continue to take the orchestra to further triumphs through what became a remarkable 33-year gig as its music director and driving force.
Ms. Lamon, who died of cancer on June 20 in Victoria at the age of 71, left the legacy of an orchestra known both for its musical excellence and its creative spirit. Under her watch, Tafelmusik embraced multiculturalism, collaborating with Chinese, South Asian and Inuit musicians. It also dove into multimedia, creating audio-visual experiences such as the astronomy-themed Galileo Project. It received nine Juno Awards and a Grammy nomination for its recordings and played sold-out concerts in such prestige venues as New York’s Carnegie Hall.
At the same time, the company set down a solid foundation in Toronto, transforming its home base, Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church, into a state-of-the-art concert hall, bringing baroque opera to the stage in its partnership with Opera Atelier and turning its annual performance of Handel’s Messiah into a beloved tradition.
Ms. Lamon did it all with a mix of baroque conventions and feminist ideals. In performance, she led Tafelmusik not from a podium but from her chair as first violin. In rehearsal, she treated the orchestra like a collective in which everyone had their say.
“She was tremendously open and listened to people’s ideas,” said Ottie Lockey, Tafelmusik’s first managing director. “And on the other hand, she was tremendously decisive. When a decision had to be made, she’d make it.”
Although a charismatic figure, she defied the stereotype of the classical music virtuoso, who was flashy and usually male. “There was no vanity in her playing,” said German maestro Bruno Weil, Tafelmusik’s long-time guest conductor. “She always put her ego behind the music. She was the best musician I ever worked with.”
She was born Jean Susan Lamon on Aug. 14, 1949, in the New York borough of Queens, to Isaac and Elly Lamon. The youngest of three children, she grew up in suburban Larchmont in New York’s Westchester County. She would credit her mother, Elly, who loved Bach and played the piano, for her musical inclinations. By three, she was already eyeing the violin longingly and by seven, she was enrolled in lessons.
After studying at the Westchester Conservatory of Music, she took a bachelor’s degree in music at Brandeis University, outside Boston. From there, she narrowed her focus, moving to Amsterdam to study violin with Herman Krebbers, concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It was at the Concertgebouw that she heard her first baroque recital and, in her words, “instantly fell in love.” By then, the baroque revival was under way in Europe, with rebellious young musicians both embracing the rich music that predated the over-familiar Western classical canon and striving for historical authenticity by playing it on period instruments. Ms. Lamon exchanged her modern violin for a baroque one and became a pupil of its leading exponent, Belgian master Sigiswald Kuijken.
In Amsterdam she would also meet the other love of her life, Dutch cellist Christina Mahler. The pair crossed paths in 1975 when they were both invited to perform a concert with recorder player Marion Verbruggen. By then, Ms. Lamon was based in the U.S., playing with various groups and making a name in North America’s comparatively small early-music circle.
Among those groups was Tafelmusik, founded in 1979 by local baroque musicians Kenneth Solway and Susan Graves. The pair had ambitions to turn what was then an ad-hoc chamber ensemble into a touring orchestra and, in 1981, they asked Ms. Lamon and Ms. Mahler to join them as music director and principal cellist, respectively. As Ms. Mahler recalled, it seemed the perfect fit. “We were looking for a job where we could play together and build an ensemble that could last.”
Charlotte Nediger, Tafelmusik’s harpsichordist, and her husband, violist Ivars Taurins – later Tafelmusik’s choir director – were already part of the group. “We had all this youthful energy and desperately wanted this grand experiment to work,” Ms. Nediger recalled. “When Jeanne arrived on the scene, it felt like, ‘Wow! We can do this!’”
With Ms. Lockey – a fellow American expat and feminist – in the manager’s role, Ms. Lamon set out to grow Tafelmusik at home and abroad. In those early years, it was clear to Torontonians that something exciting was happening at Trinity-St. Paul’s.
Larry Beckwith, a former singer with Tafelmusik’s Chamber Choir and a long-time fan, said they upended local perceptions of baroque. “Early music back then was associated with granola and Birkenstocks,” he recalled with amusement, “but they moved quickly to dispel that image.”
They also challenged sexist attitudes. Here was an ensemble run by women with gender parity as a given, determined to achieve a standard of excellence to rival the classical music boys’ club. At the time, a female music director was such a rarity that Ms. Lamon felt compelled to change the spelling of her first name to Jeanne, to avoid the assumption that “Jean Lamon” was a Frenchman.
As upstart Canadians, they also had to fight European snobbery. The big breakthrough came when they landed their sweet record deal with Sony Classical’s new Vivarte label. Its executive producer, Wolf Erichson, who had recorded Tafelmusik for BMG, teamed the orchestra with Mr. Weil for what would become a mutually beneficial relationship. Their records, including many of the Haydn symphonies, would win praise and awards, while their regular annual appearances for 18 years at Bavaria’s Klang und Raum period-instrument festival – of which Mr. Weil was artistic director – helped build Tafelmusik’s European audience.
Mr. Weil said the orchestra’s freedom from a hidebound European tradition was a big part of its appeal. “There was no prejudice, no so-called interpretation,” he said. “They made the repertoire sound like they were new pieces. For a conductor, it was heaven.”
BBC Radio producer Les Pratt echoed those sentiments. “Theirs is a unique sound that you can’t find anywhere else,” said Mr. Pratt, who produced a two-part program on the orchestra in 2016 and counts himself a loyal fan. “I love the energy and the effervescence that Jeanne instilled into the musicians. And she is undoubtedly one of the best baroque violinists of her generation.”
Ms. Lamon also had a huge influence on the younger generation of baroque musicians, both as an artist and a director. “She was an important mentor to many of us,” said violinist Ingrid Matthews, who played with Tafelmusik in the 1990s before going on to direct the Seattle Baroque Orchestra. “When an orchestra is directed by a male conductor, no one questions his authority, but when it’s directed by a female violinist, things can get more complicated. Jeanne was a great model in that respect. She was not conflict-avoidant. She had such a strength and tenaciousness about her.”
She also knew how to unwind. Ms. Matthews has lovely memories of after-hours at the beer garden during the Klang und Raum festival, where the two violinists, who shared a music stand onstage, would also be partners at the bridge table. “We would spend long evenings down there with pints of delicious beer, playing bridge late into the night. She had a great laugh and a great sense of humour.”
In the 2000s, Ms. Lamon sought to broaden Tafelmusik’s audience and its musical palette with a string of projects conceived by the orchestra’s principal double bassist, Alison Mackay. They included a world-music version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons that found Tafelmusik performing with period instrumentalists from China and India as well as Inuit throat singers.
Wen Zhao, a Toronto-based virtuoso on the pipa, or Chinese lute, recalled Ms. Lamon’s generosity as they tackled a violin-pipa duet in an interpretation of the Spring concerto. Ms. Zhao, who had never played with a baroque orchestra before, said she was “freaked out” by the daunting task, in which her five-finger tremolos would have to complement Ms. Lamon’s bow strokes on Vivaldi’s familiar melody.
“Jeanne was so kind,” she said. “Onstage, she always gave me a big smile to encourage me. It was so emotional to play that part with her every time. Sometimes I was in tears.”
The duet won glowing reviews and became a highlight of the show. Ms. Zhao became good friends with Ms. Lamon and later played on Tafelmusik’s Asia tour of The Galileo Project in 2010.
Four Seasons, Galileo and Ms. Mackay’s other Tafelmusik shows reflected Ms, Lamon’s educational bent. She was especially passionate about training musicians, whether students or young professionals.
“When I saw Jeanne light up like a Christmas tree, it was always during a teaching moment,” Ms. Lockey said. In 2002, Ms. Lamon launched the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute, to which a winter version for more experienced period musicians was added in 2013. “At this point, a few thousand people have gone through our artist training programs from 65 different countries,” Ms. Nediger, who oversees the institutes, said. “When we tour, we’re constantly meeting alumni.”
Ms. Lamon retired from running Tafelmusik in 2014, by then having acquired many accolades, including honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto, York University and Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. She was named a member of the Order of Canada (2000) and the Order of Ontario (2014). A renovated Trinity-St. Paul’s reopened in 2013 with its concert hall named in her honour.
Reviewing her celebratory farewell concert there in The Globe and Mail, music critic Robert Harris summed up her appealing contradictions. “She is warm without being sentimental,” he wrote, “a powerful leader happy to stand a little in the shadows, a fiercely uncompromising musician with a ready smile on her face.”
Italian violinist Elisa Citterio, who followed Ms. Lamon as music director, likened taking over Tafelmusik to being handed the keys to a Ferrari. “Jeanne gave me a very strong orchestra,” she said. “It’s made it an easy process to experiment and try new things.”
After Ms. Mahler retired from Tafelmusik in 2019, she and Ms. Lamon moved to a new home in Victoria. They continued to play music as guest artists, Ms. Lamon pursued her love of painting and the couple kept up their active social life. This past January, Ms. Lamon was diagnosed with lung cancer, which spread aggressively in June, when she opted to go into palliative care.
“It was a great honour to be her life partner for 43 years,” Ms. Mahler said. “Taking care of her during her illness brought us even closer.”
Along with Ms. Mahler, Ms. Lamon leaves her sister, Dorothy Rubinoff; her brother, Edward Lamon; and 19 nieces and nephews.