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Ivars Taurins is seen in rehearsal with the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir.

Group
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir
Conductor
Ivars Taurins
Type
A Bach Tapestry
Venue
Trinity-St. Paul's Centre, Jeanne Lamon Hall
City
Toronto

For the first concert of the season to celebrate their 35th anniversary last fall – a sumptuous affair – Ivars Taurins and the Tafelmusik Baroque Choir left out Johann Sebastian Bach. Instead, they concentrated on long-time favourites like Handel, Vivaldi and Zelenka.

And for the second concert to celebrate their anniversary, presented Thursday night, they left Bach out again. That is, they left out the ultrafamiliar iconic Bach of the Passions, the famous cantatas, the oratorios. Instead, for their Bach Tapestry, Taurins and the choir presented a Bach few know – fabulous sections of lesser-known cantatas (there are 200-plus after all), excerpts from a hardly-performed Lutheran Mass in G Major, astonishing chorale settings. The cleverly programmed and satisfying evening proved the truth of perhaps the best aphorism about J.S. Bach – Beethoven's pun on the German meaning of his name. He shouldn't be called Bach, Beethoven said, but Meer, that is, not "brook," but "ocean," because of the extraordinary number of his musical ideas.

Apart from the superb, committed, passionate performing that has become the trademark of a Tafelmusik concert, the parade of new Bach movements, chorales and choruses helped accomplish something I've longed to do forever – rip that wig from Bach's head, if just for a moment, to see the real human being underneath.

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Thursday's concert was a revelation on so many levels. Certainly, if you had not had a program, you would have been convinced that several different composers were on the bill. There was the extraordinarily chromatic Bach of some of the Mass movements, sounding more like Gesualdo than old J.S., tortured and modern. There were movements that sounded like early Mozart or Haydn, classical in their treatment. There were frankly hilarious dance-like moments, as well as fugal counterpoint of intense density. Interspersed with the choral sections were equally new bits of Bach's instrumental music, including one piece he didn't actually write. Ivars Taurins and wife Charlotte Nediger decided to "do a Bach" (who constantly reworked his material) and turn the famous keyboard Italian Concerto into a real concerto for two violins and strings. It allowed us to hear the piece anew.

As clever and rewarding as the programming was, the evening took off, as always with Tafelmusik, because of the sheer joy and power of the music-making. Under Taurins's direction, both choir and orchestra made the music reveal itself, allowing us to hear past note and harmony and phrase to the real human meaning underneath, a sort of musical MRI that took shape through articulation, accent and dynamics. Choir balances were perfect, the sound was clear and precise as usual, and the small Tafelmusik orchestral forces matched the choir in intensity and commitment.

The greatest revelation of an evening of revelations, though, was the one Bach piece on the program that wasn't unfamiliar – the famous section from Cantata 147 that we know as Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. That's a fine translation into English if you want to match the rhythm of the original, but "Jesu, bleibet meine Freude" actually means something closer to "Jesus shall remain my joy" – there's no desiring in the German, and a brief trip through Wikipedia tells us that Freude probably comes from an old Norse word meaning "to hop." And that's what the Tafelmusik Jesu sounded like. A dance-like, dialled-back, intensely approachable and supple call to joy – on a human, rather than an ecclesiastical scale.

It reminds us that the generous and human-scaled Ivars Taurins, so demonstrative on the podium, the guy who makes us laugh as Herr Handel at Christmastime, the ultimate mensch – is also a great conductor, on any terms. Maybe if he were a bit more severe, it would be more obvious, but we should be delighted we have him, just as he is. Between his musicianship, his scholarship and his leadership, he is the Tafelmusik complete package.

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