Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
By Larry Beckwith
As the remarkable Tafelmusik Chamber Choir approaches celebrations of its fortieth anniversary, a visceral scene comes to mind:
It’s 7pm on a Saturday night, and the choir has gathered in the gym at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre to warm up. Some are already splendidly dressed in their concert finery, as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting takes place in the chapel next door. Conductor Ivars Taurins bounds in, clapping his hands. “Let’s get started, please,” and we begin focusing for the evening’s event, as the intermission coffee and cookies are organized and the Tafelmusik merchandise desk is set up around us. Members of the orchestra wander in and out, and smiles and waves are exchanged. The fine details of tuning, articulation, text, phrasing, and blend are addressed in a relaxed but serious session. After 25 minutes or so, the choir members repair to the church nursery in the basement, across the hall from a Salsa class in full swing. Lively conversation ensues as we don bow ties and cufflinks and stage management issues calls: “Five minutes, everyone. Five minutes.”
At the appointed time, we mount the creaky stairs and pass by the church cat, unceremoniously squatting in its litter box with an irritated expression. “Move along, people. Nothing to see here.” We can hear the orchestra tuning onstage and wait for our cue to enter, chatting and joking up to the very last second. As the door opens, we enter a new, formal, exciting world, and the applause of a capacity audience of 700 surrounds us on three sides. Four A-list soloists promenade down the middle aisle of the main floor of Jeanne Lamon Hall, followed by Maestro Taurins. All look radiant as they negotiate the narrow steps to the stage. Packed in a little too close for comfort, we bow. All goes silent and for the next two hours we make the most glorious music together.
That scene has been recreated countless times over the past 40 years. I was lucky enough to be right in the middle of it for two lengthy stints, from 1989 to 1997 and 2002 to 2010. Exquisite performances of music by Bach, Handel, Purcell, Haydn, Zelenka, Charpentier, and so many others compete for prominence in the memory. And, inextricably linked to the music are the personal connections with fellow musicians and audience members forged in that intimate and strangely egalitarian atmosphere at Trinity-St. Paul’s, which will always feel like the choir’s home. Indeed, when we would perform in fancier, more formal halls, it always seemed a bit strange to be tucked away—far from the madding crowd—in a dressing room with our names on it.
Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, 2002/03 season. Larry Beckwith: second row, third from the right.
In its first few choral ventures, Tafelmusik engaged guest ensembles: the Tallis Choir, the St. Thomas Singers, Jubilate Singers, and others. But by the fall of 1981, an in-house choir had been formed and in very short order, became a strong ensemble with a unique sense of purpose. They’ve never looked back.
Under the tireless leadership of Ivars Taurins, the choir continues to approach every project with meticulous preparation, consummate skill, and impeccable style. A choir is very much the sum of its parts, and I’m here to tell you that it was such a profound delight every time I performed with the Tafelmusik choir. I couldn’t quite believe what we were accomplishing. It was such a wonderful combination of the confidence that comes from enough rehearsal, great leadership on the podium, and being surrounded by smart singers and instrumentalists with a determined and common goal.
By the time I joined the choir in the fall of 1989, it was a polished group that had developed a good sense of routine. Rehearsals—every Tuesday evening—were strenuous but fun: with Ivars very much in charge, but others feeling free to ask questions and offer perspective. Stalwart members at that time included soprano Tannis Sprott, alto Peter Mahon (surely the longest-serving member by now!) and that inimitable force of nature, bass John Pepper. Aside from anchoring the bass section for many decades, John would make an appearance from Massey Hall stage left every year in Sing-Along Messiah, carrying Herr Handel’s glass of claret on a silver tray—“Chateauneuf de Pape und Danforth.”
The first program I was involved in was a concert performance of Purcell’s Fairy Queen and I don’t think I’ve fully recovered, 32 years later. It really rocked me. The music, the soloists, the outstanding playing, and that incredible choral sound at the centre of it all. Well, it all contributed to a kind of baptism for me. I was totally hooked, and that singular experience would inform my own musical direction in years to come.
Shortly thereafter, in the space of twelve months from April 1990 to April 1991, the choir was blessed to work with three exceptional guest conductors: Ton Koopman (directing the Mass in B Minor by J.S Bach), Andrew Parrott (directing the Mozart Requiem), and Gustav Leonhardt (in a program of Bach cantatas). It’s always been my contention that those three experiences inspired a growth spurt in the choir. By the fall of 1991, on its tenth anniversary, this was a confident, powerful group and one of the finest chamber choirs anywhere.
Through the 1990s, there were many highlights, including memorable performances of the Christmas Oratorio by J.S. Bach, the Mass in C Minor by Mozart, Handel’s Israel in Egypt and Haydn’s Creation. And the choir membership expanded to include a number of future star soloists such as soprano Gillian Keith, tenor Michael Colvin, and baritone James Westman.
The choir became a close unit in those days, often retiring to the pub after rehearsals and concerts, deepening shared social and musical bonds.
Sing-Along Messiah, 2009.
These bonds were most keenly felt—and probably still are—in the annual performances of Handel’s Messiah, which is such an important tradition in this city. In the early days, we would do a little tour of smaller Ontario towns and return for one serious performance at Massey Hall on the Friday before Christmas, followed by the rollicking Sing-Along performance on the Sunday afternoon. You would think that singing the same piece year after year might get a bit wearing, but the exact opposite is the case. Messiah is an infinite wonder. There are so many threads of humanity in the score, so many points of introspection, revelation, sorrow, and triumphant joy. And no one knows that piece better than Ivars Taurins. His unwavering and deep commitment to every detail in the score in the “legit” performances is palpable—and then, he turns around and embodies the composer himself, “Georg,” in the Sing-Along and has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand.
“Ivars strikes just the right balance,” says the charter choir member, frequent Tafelmusik soloist, and brilliant singer Laura Pudwell about Sing-Along Messiah. “He leads those performances so expertly and we all—singers, players, audience members—just follow him, laughing so hard we cry. It’s a deeply beautiful thing and everyone is included.”
The choir has gone from strength to strength in the first two decades of the 21st century. Highlights have included annual extravaganzas at the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute, and collaborations with other Toronto-area music organizations: such as a memorable Soundstreams production in 2004, where the choir teamed up with six other professional choirs in the Atrium of the CBC Broadcasting Centre for The Fall into Light by the great Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste.
One of two memorable experiences for me near the end of my time in the choir was Handel’s Solomon, with soloists Michael Chance, Karina Gauvin, and Colin Balzer. The singing was exquisite, Ivars’ direction was brilliant, and Handel’s music is so deeply moving that I really did weep after each of those performances. The other was a tour to Montréal in January of 2009 for performances of the Bach Mass in B Minor with Kent Nagano conducting. Those two shows, in front of huge audiences, were so thrilling and Maestro Nagano brought a wonderful, open-minded, collaborative spirit to the rehearsals. Unforgettable.
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir directed by Kent Nagano in Montréal.
In more recent years, there have been more oratorios, a landmark Beethoven Ninth Symphony, a fascinating program of the music of Agostino Steffani, and more Bach. With each concert that I now experience from the audience, I can tell that the choir continues to share a camaraderie and devotion to the music. It would be fair to say that we can now call Tafelmusik Chamber Choir a great institution.
There is much more that can be said. I haven’t mentioned the very fine recordings that the choir has made for CBC Records and the in-house Tafelmusik Media label, all of the incredible CBC broadcasts in earlier times—including a memorable Sunday afternoon “live-to-air” performance of Haydn’s The Seasons from Massey Hall—and stand-alone choir concerts that have happened all too infrequently over the years.
Huge admiration and deep gratitude are due to Ivars Taurins for his knowledge, research skills, musicality, sense of humour, leadership, and passion. He is a treasure, and the choir’s success is firstly and foremostly due to his mastery and resilience. It’s not easy to do anything for 40 years, but one needs a huge reserve of foresight and energy to keep a choir together and thriving for that long.
Aside from Messiah, the Mass in B Minor has been a mainstay in the choir’s repertoire, from those early, transformative performances under Ton Koopman to the Nagano offerings in Montréal, surrounded by a number of thrilling versions directed by Ivars himself. It’s a tour de force for any choir, so it is very fitting that Tafelmusik Chamber Choir will perform it at Massey Hall in the spring of 2022, with guest director Masaaki Suzuki, as part of this anniversary season.
To Ivars and every member of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, past, present, and future: thank you for providing exceptionally compelling performances of such a high standard for the past forty years. The city of Toronto has been the richer for the beauty and intelligence that radiates from this stellar ensemble.
Larry Beckwith was a member of Tafelmusik Chamber Choir from 1989–1997 and 2002–2010, and hopes that he might be able to sing with the group again sometime! Beckwith has been a creative contributor to Canada’s musical life as a conductor, violinist, singer, writer, educator, and programmer for over 30 years. In 2003, Beckwith founded Toronto Masque Theatre, which—under his tireless and imaginative artistic leadership from 2003 to 2018—presented over 70 innovative programs of interdisciplinary performing art. Through TMT, he commissioned and premiered new works by Canadian composers Abigail Richardson, James Rolfe, Omar Daniel, Juliet Palmer, Dean Burry, and Alice Ho. In 2018, Beckwith’s new company Confluence Concerts made its debut and has been garnering accolades for its fresh and inclusive approach to programming. Beckwith is a committed educator and runs the celebrated strings program at the arts-intensive Unionville High School, as well as conducting the Mooredale Senior Youth Orchestra.