Tafelmusik Salutes Bach’s Leipzig In ‘Circle of Creation’

Tafelmusik performs 'Circle of Creation.' (Glenn Davidson)
Tafelmusik’s ‘J.S.Bach: The Circle of Creation’ focuses on Leipzig from 1723 to 1750, at the time of Bach. (Glenn Davidson)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO – Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra has come around to thinking that modernity isn’t all bad. By combining a well-honed historically informed performance ethos with cutting-edge technology, the orchestra has created a series of multimedia concerts.

In 2009, Tafelmusik impressed audiences and critics alike with The Galileo Project, a narrated concert with live music and stunning projected images of the cosmos. Three years later, they staged House of Dreams, about the commercial life of Europe in the Baroque era. Again, text and visual images were intrinsic parts of the presentation.  Designed for touring, the two productions have been performed extensively in Canada, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand.

The latest in the series is J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation, with six performances in Toronto between May 6 and 12. The first five took place downtown, at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church, Tafelmusik’s home base. And the sixth (which I attended) was at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, in the northern part of the city.  Discussions are underway to line up tour venues for this project as well in the coming seasons.

Tafelmusik’s point-person in this ongoing enterprise is Alison Mackay. For a quarter-century she has played her double bass in the rear of the orchestra. But as the author of Tafelmusik’s multimedia shows, she has stepped to the fore, proving her talents in blending music, visual images, and the spoken word into a cohesive and engaging narrative. In some ways, the results resemble documentary films — the sort of thing you might expect to see on the Public Broadcasting System. But the balance of the constituent parts isn’t the same. Here, music is not relegated to the background, but placed front and center, and the texts and projections play supporting roles. (Canada’s Banff Centre provided facilities to edit the projections.)

In J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation, Mackay has picked up where House of Dreams left off. Continuing with the theme of commerce, she focused on the city of Leipzig, a center for trade and craftsmanship — and also, from 1723 to 1750, the home of Johann Sebastian Bach. What most interested Mackay was how all the materials Bach needed to create his music — paper, ink, candles, and of course musical instruments — were manufactured. Fancifully, she began her story with the mythical story of the winged god Mercury building the first lyre for Apollo, but soon moved on to Leipzig in the 18th century.

Almost all of the music on the program was by Bach: Tafelmusik played excerpts from the Orchestral Suites, the Third Brandenburg Concerto, and other orchestral works. Of course, Bach is squarely within this band’s wheelhouse, and performances were polished and lively even as the musicians performed from memory, moving about the stage.

The program was a vehicle for solo performances, as well. Harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger, whose instrument is usually tightly woven into Tafelmusik’s orchestral texture, offered enchanting solo renditions of the Sinfonia in G Minor, BWV 797, the Prelude in C Major, BWV 933, and movements from the Goldberg Variations. The orchestra’s oboists, violinists, and cellist also had turns as soloists, sometimes positioned within the audience.

In between musical selections, narrator Richard Greenblatt talked about paper made from flax linen, copper and zinc wire for harpsichord strings, maple and spruce woods for stringed instruments, and other manufactured goods. And throughout the evening, film footage (custom-made for this production, showed how these items were skillfully hand-crafted. Even the clever little pen-and-ink tool that Bach used to draw his own manuscript paper made a cameo appearance.

J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation is not without its missteps. There was a touch of unintended humor in the images of sheep, safely grazing, while the orchestra played “Sheep May Safely Graze.” (Somehow, it was too bluntly literal.) And an example of Jewish music from the period — “The Song of Solomon,” sung by Robert Kinar — was stylistically disconnected from the rest of the program. It felt like an inclusion for inclusion’s sake.

But overall, the latest production in Tafelmusik’s growing multimedia catalog is interesting, charming, and smoothly put together. Let’s hope there are more to come.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould.