Splendours Of The Emperor’s Chapel

Header-image-StephenBy Robert K. Stephen (Toronto, Ontario)

(TORONTO, ON) – Many of us love classical music. Unfortunately, for radio listeners, we are fed a steady diet of big hits. I have no beef with big classical music hits, as they are often incredibly complex masterpieces that can transport the mind away to a different dimension. But, where I have a problem, classical music radio stations exploit the popular so, at some point, many listeners I know tire of the classical music playlist.

There is no effort paid to exploring the foundations of classical music.

If you love the classical genre, or for that matter any type of music, shouldn’t you venture beyond Beethoven, Mozart, Schuman, Schubert, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, etc? Explore other artists, some of which laid the path for the aforementioned greats.

Focussing on other than the big names may be difficult to sell therefore you will never hear them. I say, if you like any genre of music, go beyond the big hits and think and listen about precursors to the Glenn Gould pounders.

The Toronto Consort, Canada’s leading ensemble specializing in music of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and early Baroque (1200-1675), knows how to please an audience with its rollicking tunes, and hurdy gurdy in full motion. But, to its credit, refuses to be caught in the quagmire of populist delight.

This was most evident in their recent set of concerts Splendours of The Emperor’s Chapel, in Toronto on February 6 and 7. No big hits here, but rather an attempt to lay the foundations for modern classical music, as we know it on hot classical music radio.

We were introduced to compositions of Schmelzer, Mielczewski, Capricornus, Dolar, Bertali, Neri, and Biber. All these composers are absent from classical music hit radio, enforcing classical music ignorance. Certainly, for our educational purposes, don’t we need more than Van Halen’s Jump?

So why the reference to the Emperor’s Chapel?

It’s a tie-in to the Hapsburg Empire in central Europe. The performance centred on 17th Century church music in central Europe, an area with historically fluid boundaries.

The Hapsburg emperors were both pious and very musical. Some of the emperors, including Ferdinand III and Leopold I, even composed music in addition to bankrolling many musicians. Despite central European roots of these composers it was Italians who influenced them.

So, I have dissed classical radio’s hit obsession, but at least they have an audience. Bravo for them. Now can I fall into the trap and go big hit’s style as I try to explain the highlights of the Splendours of the Emperor’s Chapel?

Boy did they Nail That One

For Magnificat 17, by Andreas Hofler, I was sitting beside David Fallis, Artistic Director of the Toronto Consort. And after the conclusion of this closing number I said, “Boy they really nailed that one!” David agreed and my goodness the sedate crowd let it be known they were not as sedate as I thought they were.

What can I say but restrained perfection.

No voice or instrument outdid each other for dominance. Really crisp choral performance. Musical perfection of both voice and instrument. Of course a terrific and perfect end to a concert.

Flirting With the Heavens

Lux Perpetua, by Biber, was predominately a choral effort that soared as close to Heaven as one could earthly imagine.

The voices of Katherine Hill, Laura Pudwell, and Michelle DeBoer took one as close to Heaven as a mortal may go. The last Alleluia chorus was resounding and haunting. If I ever get to Heaven’s Gate, this is what I will hear on God’s boom box.

Wobbly and Weak

The opening number Sonata cum tubis in pleno, a Schmelzer composition, revealed a lack of tightness in the horn section with some miscues and errant notes. As the concert progressed, the horn section tightened and delivered a crisp and exact sound.

Any miscue in the section seems to emphasize errors, and this opening number had me unnecessarily worried.

Zig Zag Violins

Guest violin and violin piccolo performers Olivier Brault and Edwin Huizinga played a little zig-zag game with each other on Sonata à 8 instrumentis, a composition of Capricornus (1628-1665). As an accompaniment to the merry violins, the horns played a wonderfully muted and complimentary role.

An engaging composition balancing the playful with the sacred.

Joëlle Morton did an admirable job on the violone de gamba ensuring discipline with deep bass notes.

Battle of the Bass Voices

So here we had John Pepper and Martin Auclair in some duelling banjo choral number. Their wonderful voices were somewhat lost in this choppy composition that lacked fluidity.

Everyone gave it their best effort, but this Vidi Luciferum composition by Bertali (1605-1669) was its own worst enemy.

The Mighty Cornetto

Perhaps the most impressive and surprising number of the night, Sonata a due cori by Bertali, which showcased a wooden instrument called the cornetto ,the ancestor of a coronet.

This cornetto packed a huge commanding punch from such a slim instrument. This was complimented by a raucous battle of the violin and violin piccolo.

The muted and exact horn section all combined to make this my favourite piece of the evening.

All said and done, this was not a performance you will hear again for some years. Some of the music was played for the first time since the 1700’s. A real treat for lovers of classical music left abandoned by classical music radio.

If you want to find some context to modern classical music you’ll have to go searching. The Toronto Consort has made it so much easier.

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About the Author

Robert Stephen (CSW)

Robert K Stephen writes about food and drink, travel, and lifestyle issues. He is one of the few non-national writers to be certified as a wine specialist by the Society of Wine Educators, in Washington, DC.

Robert was the first associate member of the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada. He also holds a Mindfulness Certification from the University of Leiden.

Be it Spanish cured meat, dried fruit, BBQ, or recycled bamboo place mats, Robert endeavours to escape the mundane, which is why he loves The Square. His motto is, “Have Story, Will Write.”

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