The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra reminds its loyal audiences of the glory days in its current concert offering, a theatrical/musical potpourri conceived by actor R.H. Thomson called Baroque London. When it's at its best, Tafelmusik Orchestra can compete with any similar ensemble in the world. Its brisk tempi, precise, yet passionate attacks and joyous ensemble work take us back to a older musical world with sharp effectiveness – to a time when music-making was powerful but contained, a form of thrilling entertainment. This season, Tafelmusik's concerts have been somewhat inconsistent, but on Thursday night, by and large, the old Tafelmusik was back.
Thomson's Baroque London had the gifted actor take on the persona of a certain Mr. Richard Neale, a retired oboist from London's Haymarket Orchestra (a real if completely undistinguished musician from Handel's day), and have Neale present us the evening's program. And although Thomson's commentary was sometimes inconsistent – more than once, his character picked up the evening's program, the one we all had in our hands, and used it to announce the next selection – Thomson is such a winning and likeable personality that we were willing to grant him a wide latitude. Part human program note, part anecdotal storytelling, part rumination on things philosophical, Thomson's Neale allowed us to experience the music of what would otherwise have been a standard concert in a much more interesting fashion.
However, the best part of the concert was that Neale's commentary allowed Tafelmusik to play 11 different selections during the course of the evening, most of them excerpts, and enabled us to sample a delicious smorgasbord (okay, an English groaning board) of musical delights. Music by Handel, Sammartini, Quantz, Geminiani, Loeillet and many other 18th-century London notables gave us the feeling in a very real way of how varied and immense musical life was in the English capital 250 years ago.
Many of the musical selections of the evening featured soloists of one kind or another, and here's where Tafelmusik's superb players shone with the brightest light. Christina Mahler's passionate cello, John Abberger and Marco Cera's precise yet soaring oboes, Jeanne Lamon's sharp violin and especially Gregoire Jeay's gorgeous flute all provided music-making of the highest order. Perhaps it was the excellence of the soloists, or maybe the fun of Thomson's Neale, but for some reason the Tafelmusik Orchestra seemed inspired to dig deeper than usual in providing support for the featured performers. In the vernacular of 200 years later, they nailed it.
Thomson's final speech of the evening was a bittersweet rumination on the power of music to persist and live on beyond the lives of those who first make it. Tafelmusik's entire evening, as it turns out, was an exciting demonstration of the truth of that powerful and beautiful sentiment.
Baroque London continues at Trinity-St.Paul's Centre, Jan. 18 to 20 and George Weston Recital Hall, Jan. 22.