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SCRUTINY | Elisa Citterio Shows She Is Exactly What Tafelmusik Needs

By David Podgorski on May 6, 2017

Elisa Citterio | Violin and Guest Director, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra (Photo courtesy Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra)
Elisa Citterio |  (Photo courtesy Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra)

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir; Elisa Citterio, Music Director; Ivars Taurins (Choir Director). At Koerner Hall. May 5.

Some musical groups seem to share a cultural, or even emotional, link with the cities they come from, and to me, Tafelmusik has always been a symbol of Toronto. In some ways the group’s story has mirrored and shared in, Toronto’s rise from a mid-tier city of little cultural importance to the exciting cosmopolis its become today.

Tafelmusik earned its reputation in the early 80s through the efforts of Canadian musicians who had studied at the top European schools and wanted to settle down in Toronto, bringing the cultural expertise they had learned from some of the leading lights of the early music movement in Europe along with them.

And like Tafelmusik, Canadian artistic groups were out to prove that fledgling Canadian ensembles could hold their own against established American and European cultural institutions. Over the course of Jeanne Lamon’s tenure with the group, its influence within the Early Music community grew to the point where it proved it could make award-winning albums, bring in top international soloists, and, on a good night, bring down the house with a superb live performance. Now, with their new music director Elisa Citterio set to take the helm, it looks as if Tafelmusik — and by extension, Toronto — is finally a destination for artists looking to make a name for themselves.

Judging by their concert at Koerner Hall last Friday, Citterio is exactly what Tafelmusik needs. She has an engaging but modest stage presence and an easy command of the orchestra from the first violin desk. She’s an accomplished soloist, and as concertmaster in Friday’s performance, showed a remarkable ability to play to both the audience and to the rest of the group when each needed attention. And the first half of the program, when Citterio directed Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 in B-flat Major, showed she was prepared to gamble at least a little for the sake of a great performance. Allegro movements that ran, phrasing that showed a keen understanding of form, and a clear sense of balance between strings, winds, and brass were all very much in evidence here. You can bet I’m buying tickets for her official debut with the group next September.

But what I also couldn’t fail to notice is that Citterio and the group seem like they’re unsure of whether they want to make a long-term commitment to each other just yet. There’s no missing the signs, and the questions they raise: why is Citterio Tafelmusik’s “music director” and not its “artistic director?” Why did she get a one hour Q and A before each concert but have to cede top billing to Ivars Taurins’s Mozart Mass in C Minor? And why was the program split down the middle? Is Tafelmusik hedging on the past and future of the ensemble, or is there tension between the new director and the old guard?

It’s hard to tell from just one Haydn symphony, but the players were clearly enjoying themselves, and the audience picked up on it. The Haydn felt like play. Taurins gave a spirited, although textbook, performance of the C Minor Mass, but after a half-hour Gloria and shopping-list Credo, the Mozart felt like work.

After a three-year search, Tafelmusik finally has a leader that can make the group sound like a first-rate orchestra. It’s clear that they’ve done well in signing Citterio and that, in doing so, they’ve established that Tafelmusik is a good enough ensemble to attract some of the best talents in the world.

For Citterio’s sake, I sincerely hope she considers being named music director of Tafelmusik to be a similar honor, but we’ll be able to gauge how she feels about playing with the group by both the length of her tenure and what both she, and the orchestra, can achieve together in the coming years.

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