Review: Camerata Nova excites with Taken; Tafelmusik technically perfect but stuffy

Tafelmusik offered a look at the world in which J.S. Bach's music was written. Photo: Sian Richards

Two small ensemble classical concerts at Canada Scene this weekend presented a striking contrast between the experimental and the traditional. One was innovative, inclusive and thoroughly engaging, despite some flaws in the execution. The other was technically impeccable, but stuffy and unoriginal.

On Saturday afternoon, the Winnipeg chamber choir Camerata Nova brought its Taken project to the University of Ottawa’s Tabaret Hall. The show, which premiered in Winnipeg earlier this year, explores the issue of First People’s dispossession through collaborations with Indigenous composers and performers from across Canada.

Jeremy Dutcher, a young musician from the Maliseet Nation in New Brunswick, performed an impassioned, solo Honour Song, accompanying himself on drum and piano, before joining Camerata Nova and cellist Leanne Zacharias for his Maceptasu (It is taken away).

Jeremy Dutcher’s piece, Macepatsu (It is taken away), is a “powerful, appealing first effort.” Photo: John Paille

The work — Dutcher’s compositional debut — was inspired by heartbreaking stories of young Indigenous children taken from their families and sent to suffer in the residential school system. Although it exhibits some typical novice weaknesses — it’s somewhat fragmented, and relies on repetition rather than development — this is a powerful, appealing first effort from Dutcher. What it lacks in structural complexity, it makes up for in raw honesty, emotional impact, and a sense of melodic flow that can’t be taught.

Lindsay Knight, aka Eekwol, is a hip-hop artist from Muskoday First Nation in Saskatchewan. While her flow is cool and mellow, her raps are tough, thought-provoking and fearlessly political: “I wish I had a gun, seek revenge for my little ones, or maybe turn it on myself, end the pain, but then I’d just lose again.” As Zacharias improvised cello lines, Camerata Nova supplied the backing track, including some pretty slick beatboxing and overtone singing. But not everyone in the choir seemed comfortable in the genre; I felt the sopranos especially weren’t in the pocket.

Andrew Balfour’s Qaumaniq (Bright Aura) is an accomplished, multi-movement cantata by a serious — and seriously creative — composer. Balfour, Camerata Nova’s artistic director, is of Cree descent but was adopted as a child by an Anglican priest. Not surprisingly, many of his works deal with identity lost and found, and with the consequences of exchanges between cultures.

In Qaumaniq, Balfour imagines the first encounter between explorer Martin Frobisher and the inhabitants of Baffin Island, and the kidnapping of a woman to take back to England. The work deftly incorporates Inuit musical idioms, English sailor songs, pounding, Coplandesque percussion, snippets of Tudor polyphony by Tallis and Byrd, and Balfour’s own sophisticated choral writing: dissonances that grind like sea ice, mixed in with creepy, sibilant whispering and sounds of nature.

The star of this piece is the wonderfully charismatic performer and journalist Madeleine Allakariallak; her throat singing duet with Michael Thompson on electric didgeridoo was captivating and wholly new. Fred Ford’s sensitive, uncontrived narration added poetic depth.

After Louis Riel, it was refreshing and inspiring to sit through a concert where living Indigenous artists told their own stories and experiences. In comparison, The Circle of Creation, Tafelmusik’s Bach multimedia show at Southam Hall Sunday night, was a throwback to music as museum set piece.

The concept seems promising: present the artisans, craftspeople and tradespeople who made Bach’s output in Leipzig possible: from the makers of string and wind instruments, to the experts who made his paper and ink, to the cloth merchants who supplied the taxe revenue that paid his salary.

Unfortunately, the whole thing felt like one of those old-fashioned “monuments of Western Civilization” continuing ed courses: the almost comically high-toned narration, obsessed with the dullest minutiae; the static, literal video and photography projections (the selection for Sheep may safely graze was, surprise, pastoral images of sheep grazing); and a frustrating greatest hits, WQXR approach to the music, all single movements and excerpts instead of complete works.

Toronto’s beloved Baroque orchestra plays so beautifully, with such grace and buoyancy, with so much collegial virtuosity, it either requires nothing, or else it demands supporting creative elements that are every bit as thrilling and fresh.

Still, the evening wasn’t entirely without excitement. About 10 minutes into the first half, a man started loudly heckling from the audience, complaining in French that the narration was only in English. After his third eruption, other Francophones in the audience started yelling at him to be quiet. It was easily the most dramatic outburst I’ve seen at a concert in years. How typical of Ottawa that it was over language politics, not artistic merit.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.