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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

PREVIEW | Tafelmusik Goes Au Natural At The Hearn For Luminato

By Ieva Lucs on June 16, 2016

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra prepares to take the stage at The Hearn, acoustically naked but unafraid.

Hearn Generating Station (Photo: David Leyes)
Hearn Generating Station (Photo: David Leyes)

This weekend, during a performance for the Luminato Festival, the musicians of The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra are going naked. That is, they are performing without any … amplification.

Unplugged is a normal state for this award-winning ensemble of musicians. However, with Luminato using the old husk of The Hearn Generating Station on the Toronto waterfront as their venue, sound quality is a concern.

Mara Brown, Tafelmusik’s operations manager, went down and checked out The Hearn before construction started in May. She walked around the 250,000 square foot former coal-burning plant “just taking the time to listen.”

“I walked through to assess what each space felt like,” said Brown. “When I got to the main stage area I tried to envision how sounds might travel through the buildings.”

Brown’s fear, besides the fact that even a slight breeze can throw their 17th and 18th-century instruments right out of tune, was the echo. According to Luminato’s website, The Hearn can fit the Statue of Liberty inside its walls both vertically and horizontally.

“It is such a buoyant space, I wanted to make sure they could hear themselves,” said Brown. “There was a massive debate about whether or not to amplify. Caroline Hollway (a producer at Luminato) said ‘why don’t you just go naked? Just go for it!’”

In the end, Tafelmusik decided their concert this weekend would be au natural because, as Brown said, “that’s the way it was intended to be shared.”

Cristina Zacharias, Violin (Photo: Sian Richards
Cristina Zacharias, Violin (Photo: Sian Richards)

Cristina Zacharias, who has been playing the violin with Tafelmusik for 12 years, said the orchestra spends most of their rehearsal time in irregular spaces playing their instruments to get a feel for what they hear back.

“We send someone out to listen from the audience to see what’s coming across. Sometimes we have to change how we’re standing in relation to each other,” said Zacharias. “Tafelmusik has played a massive variety of concert spaces all over the world. All that touring makes us adaptable.”

Upon reflection, Zacharias is able to divide the places the orchestra has played in into two categories: “Places that teach us how our music should sound and places where we make the decision about how our music will suit the space.”

The Royal Palace at Versailles, a venue the orchestra has performed in several times, is an example of a space for which the music was intended. Playing there is an experience Zacharias calls “a real thrill.”

“You suddenly have a sense of what the music sounded like when the ink was still drying on the page. You’re getting an idea of what the composer and audience heard at that time. This teaches us a lot about how the music that we’re striving to produce should sound.”

As for spaces that force the orchestra to adapt, a good example is The Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis. The church’s interior is lined with one of the largest collections of mosaics in the Western Hemisphere. Tafelmusik was warned that the decay time (how long you hear the note after it is played) was 5.4 seconds.

“It had a huge impact on our show,” said Zacharias. “The sound became so confusing. As soon as the orchestra started to play all the sound was still in there, bouncing around off of the walls. The result was, we played everything slower.”

According to their stage manager, they had added 15 minutes to the show that night.

It isn’t just the venues that force the orchestra to adapt. Many of the musicians are using instruments that are centuries old — the oldest being a violin from 1625. Zacharias’ own violin was made in 1776.  Both Brown and Zacharias agree that sudden changes in temperature and humidity are the instruments’ worst enemy.

“Our strings will go wildly out of tune,” said Zacharias. “We’re playing on strings that are made of gut so they’re more susceptible to changes. You might see a violinist take a little one second moment on their own, when they find a spot, that they can just kind of quickly make a little adjustment. If things are getting really bad, then we’ll take a moment between pieces to check our intonation.”

But when it comes to instruments that can’t be tuned easily, like the harpsichord, Brown expects the problem of the weather to become a major factor. “If there’s too much of a breeze from being on the waterfront that could persuade it to go out of tune. That will influence the entire show.”

On performance day, Brown is hoping for “not too much wind, not too much water, not too hot — that would be my wish list for the day.”

No matter what happens on stage, however, the musicians are professionals who have each other’s backs. Brown described a tense moment at a concert at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre last June in which a violinist broke a string.

“He turned around, switched instruments with another player, turned back and continued playing. He didn’t even miss a beat. The three violinists who were off stage had all offered him their violins. There was no question. It was just like ‘take mine’ and he chose one and off he went. Their nonverbal communication is something else.”

But the question of why Tafelmusik would push its musicians to play outside their comfort zone in the cavernous and damp Hearn when they could be somewhere like Koerner Hall, which has zero sound decay and the perfect amount of humidity, is still hanging in the air like a note in St. Louis.

“I don’t know if Telemann has ever been played in The Hearn,” Zacharias laughs. “We have our golden ideal and tailor it to make it work in whatever space. There could be echoes or sound decay issues that could really impact the way we’re able to perform and could add some interesting aspects we might not have thought.”

“Tafelmusik is continually challenging itself,” Brown adds. “Some spaces aren’t always conducive to putting on a masterful performance, but it introduces the music to new audiences. Luminato is fresh and exciting, but it’s also something that supports the community here in Toronto.”

On Sunday, The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra will take the stage at The Hearn, naked but unafraid.  The musicians and audience will be in that space, experiencing it all for the first time together. What will happen that night no one knows, but this talented and malleable group is ready for anything — whatever the weather.

For tickets and concert details, see here


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Ieva Lucs

Ieva Lucs is a freelance journalist, postgraduate student and actor based in Toronto.

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