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Tafelmusik’s new managing director, William Norris.

Joe Plommer

It's baroque, but it ain't broke. So why is Tafelmusik fixing itself? On May 10, the Toronto early-music orchestra unveils Haus Musik, a new series involving five musicians performing period music on period instruments in a casual, standing-only venue with a cash bar. The evening includes a sound design by electronic-music producer DJ BSMNT and an atmospheric setting created by the opera stage director Amanda Smith. We spoke to Tafelmusik's new managing director, William Norris, recently poached from the British period-music ensemble the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Haus Musik follows your successful innovation with Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, a program called The Night Shift, which is a series of period-music concerts held in relaxed, contemporary settings around London. Was this a matter of sticking The Night Shift template onto Toronto and Tafelmusik?

We've taken a slightly different tack here. Immersive theatre is currently a trend, and Haus Musik will be a more theatrical experience than The Night Shift. Amanda Smith is the director. We're aiming to have a very atmospheric evening, where you're led on a journey through different pieces of music. It's an experiment, and we've got more things planned. I think Toronto is ready for this type of thing. And Tafelmusik is very collaborative, and up for trying things.

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So it's experimental, and electronic dance music is involved. But, it's still, at its core, Tafelmusik doing period music on period instruments, yes?

Yes. We're keen to point out that there's nothing wrong with period music. It's just that people don't necessarily know about it. The music itself talks about emotions, and it still speaks to people today even if it is 300 years old. There will be some interaction with modern music. Before the concert, DJ BSMNT will be sampling recorded period music. But the classical part of the evening stands on its own.

Is the series a way of drawing younger audiences to the traditional Tafelmusik concerts at Koerner Hall or Trinity-St. Paul's?

The short-term objective is to get younger people to come and listen to Tafelmusik. It's a change in environment. We aren't trying to get them into something soft so they'd come to a proper concert. Of course, in 30 or 40 years' time, they may want a more conventional experience. But, with The Night Shift, whether they heard Beethoven in a pub or Beethoven in a concert hall, that was fine by us. We're trying to develop different concert experiences for different markets.

You're not the only one trying these kind of innovations, with music in different non-traditional settings. Do you think we'll be seeing more of this?

There's a general trend toward unconventional performances. In London, the Royal Orchestra is doing very interesting things. I know the NAC Orchestra is doing its Wolfgang Sessions in a bar rather than a concert hall. And the New World Symphony in Miami has been experimenting with different concert formats. There's more and more of this happening, and it can only be a good thing.

You say that Toronto is ready for this, but you also know that Tafelmusik's sing-along Messiah concerts, with a conductor in a powdered wig and 18th-century garb, is fantastically popular. Is it possible that Toronto prefers kicking it old school?

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We're not going to stop what we're good at and what we're successful at. It's just about adding options for people, really. We have a great tradition, but we also have to accept that our audience is definitely skewed to an older demographic, which is fine. We want to welcome in a younger demographic, and we're looking to come to them instead of expecting them to come to us.

It's funny, Tafelmusik introducing casual concerts when Montreal rock troupe Arcade Fire recently challenged its audiences to show up at concerts in costumes or formal attire, in a bid to making the concert experience more special.

That's interesting. I didn't know about that. But to be completely frank, bands like Arcade Fire don't have trouble attracting an audience. I mean, we don't have trouble attracting audiences generally. It's just that we want it to be more diverse. We have a duty to do that. So, you can get dressed up for our concerts at Koerner Hall and Trinity-St. Paul's if you like. But you can also come to Haus Musik and stand there with a beer.

Tafelmusik's Haus Musik, May 10, 7:30 p.m. ($18 in advance), 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, hausmusik.eventbrite.ca.

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