Skip to main content

Music Tafelmusik’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony reminds me why I fell in love with music in the first place

Group
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir
Conductor
Bruno Weil
Guests
Sigrid Plundrich, Mary-Ellen Nesi, Colin Balzer, Simon Tischler
Type
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
Venue
Koerner Hall
City
Toronto
Date
Sunday, February 07, 2016

We critics are supposed to criticize – that's our job. But on Sunday afternoon, I found myself unable to complete my critic's task, because too many tears were dampening my face. Every so often, you come across a performance that renders you powerless to resist, that sweeps you away with it, that reminds you of why you fell in love with music in the first place.

Such a performance was Tafelmusik's Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, presented this weekend at Toronto's Koerner Hall. Under the masterful direction of conductor Bruno Weil, with a stellar group of soloists and the impeccable Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, an ultra-familiar masterpiece came to life as though for the first time, spilling its powerful magic throughout the hall.

A hundred years separate the St. Matthew Passion of Bach (Tafelmusik's more usual fare) and Beethoven's Ninth, a hundred years in which the political and moral and spiritual life of Europe underwent a profound revolution. The intense, internal, but stable world of Bach's deeply felt Christianity gave rise a century later to a dynamic, rootless world, constantly in motion, but searching nonetheless for truth and harmony. Beethoven's Ninth, with an arc that begins with the chaos of Genesis and a conclusion in the Ode to Joy, is, in the end, a profoundly religious work. It is Beethoven's Messiah. It just celebrates a different Supreme Being than Handel's, a God that is more universal.

Story continues below advertisement

Perhaps the substantial religious nature of the Ninth is why Tafelmusik's Baroque-era band did it such justice. The orchestra was more than just in good form. It was committed to the music and to the performance in an almost superhuman way. We always talk about an orchestra playing as one person, animated by the same mind and spirit. It seldom happens. On Sunday night, we were awarded a first-class demonstration. Winds and brass were in fine balance; second violin parts, usually buried, were clear and revelatory. The sheer physical energy the orchestra engaged in playing a still very taxing piece was impressive.

To conductor Bruno Weil must go a lot of the credit for the superb performances. Weil is a no-nonsense kind of guy when it comes to Beethoven (he has performed now all nine symphonies with Tafelmusik). He set quite brisk tempos for all four movements of the symphony and, more to the point, kept those tempos consistent throughout the movements (with very few exceptions), with almost fanatically disciplined precision. No slowing for the dramatic parts, no shading of tempos to make a musical point, The result was a Ninth of intense propulsion, full of the drama that Beethoven clearly intended to be its hallmark, shapely and taut. Weil never allowed the plot of the music, its musical coherence, to falter.

And then, in the final movement, where Beethoven most obviously channels the religious music of his past, and sets what can only be called a secular chorale, the famous Ode to Joy, the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir (superbly prepared by director Ivars Taurins) and a fine group of soloists took the performance to a new level. For all its fame, the last movement of the Ninth can be something of a mess – the vocal writing is a nightmare to sing, the size and scope of the music can degenerate all too easily into unsubtle noisy celebration, there are dangers aplenty. Weil and his colleagues circumvented them all. The opening shard of pain that begins the movement wasn't overplayed. The Ode itself was performed with an unearthly hush when it first appears in the cellos and basses. The four soloists, especially soprano Sigrid Plundrich (a last-minute replacement for Ruby Hughes) made musical sense out of their difficult parts. And the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, powerful and effective, shaped the music of the words they were singing so naturally that the meaning of their texts shone through.

At the end of an emotional performance, while they were taking their bows, Sigrid Plundrich noticed a banner unfurled in the balcony of Koerner Hall. "We Love You, Sigrid," it said. As she looked up, she wept. She wasn't the only one.

Unaccountably, stubbornly, Bloor Street looked the same as we exited the hall as it had looked when we entered. But it wasn't – because the ability of art to transform us and the world around us had just been proven once again. It was a powerful demonstration.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter