Tafelmusik’s J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation at Jeanne Lamon Hall. Wednesday, March 14.
Tafelmusik has become known, in recent years, for its multimedia presentations which combine video, narration, and music, intended both to give a visual component to an instrumental program, as well as provide the audience with some context for the music performed. Their latest concert in this genre, had its debut March 14 at Jeanne Lamon Hall.
The format has become something of a recurring sub-genre for the group. Bassist Alison McKay, a long-time member of the orchestra, has made a name for herself putting together numerous programs of this type. The Circle of Creation is McKay’s tribute to the high-Baroque master who called Leipzig home for the last 25 years of his life, and shows us not just what it meant to be a musician in 18th-Century Germany, but what life was like for the artisans and the ordinary people of the period.
It’s an ambitious project, and educating the concert-going public on the finer points of music history is bound to be a tough sell. What’s striking about this concert is not so much the musicology involved, but rather that a multi-media approach puts the orchestra in a secondary role and forces the concert to succeed or fail on the strength (or weakness) of the visuals and narration.
As a critic, I can’t find much fault with the players. What we have here is an orchestra that can deliver and stage an entire concert of Bach from memory — no small feat. And while the players seemed to want to blast through the first half at maximum speed in the first Orchestral Suite and Brandenburg 3, they gave a remarkably sensitive performance of Orchestral Suite #3 and the chamber arrangements of the Goldbergs.
But is it still a concert if Tafelmusik is relegated to providing occasion music to a video montage? I worry how the addition of multi-media formats affects the players: rather than using their own knowledge of musical rhetoric to focus the audience’s attention, the players can deliver their lines, if you will, and let the visuals take care of the rest.
I see the potential here for educating the audience, and there was definite evidence of this on hand — having the bass line for the Goldberg Variations helps the audience focus on part of the music they wouldn’t otherwise hear. Showing the audience a detail of the Haussmann portrait before you play the canon triplex is informative and cool. But close-ups of leaves and microscopic slides of a cello is really pushing it. A five-minute montage of sheep while the group plays “Sheep may safely graze” is pandering. And throwing up a portrait of Christina Mahler while Christina Mahler is playing on stage is a sign the artist thinks the paying public will die of boredom unless it’s staring at a screen.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to entertain as well as edify — it’s one of the hardest balances to strike as a musician performing some of the most abstract and complicated music in the world. But after witnessing patrons talk, send text messages, and answer their cell phones through performances, I’m starting to suspect that these presentation-concerts are less an attempt to educate the audience, as more an attempt to get a largely indifferent public to shut up and pay attention. And I don’t think this bodes well for musicians in the future.