An Interview with Tafelmusik


Philippe’s home was a cultivated place. The west wing of the Palais Royale held his art collection, the best in Europe of its kind. The east wing held the theatre of the Paris Opera.   The Duc D’Orleans had his own box, and could slip directly from his living quarters into the opera.  For his wedding anniversary, Marin Marais wrote the opera “Alcyone”, based on a tale from Ovid’s “Metamorphosis”.

At around the same time, the Duke published a three-volume set of etchings in a limited edition.  It was the 18th-century version of a coffee-table book, enabling the well-heeled to page through facsimiles of the west wing paintings – many of which were also based on Ovid’s stories.

Fast forward three centuries. Some of the Duke’s books have made their way to the rare books room of the Royal Ontario Museum, where double-bass player Alison Mackay can page through them.

“The Palais Royale has really changed since then,” says Mackay. “Inside, it is nothing like it was in the 17th century. But technology allows us to take pictures of the rooms that the music would have been performed in, and acquire the rights to the images of the paintings from museums, and put the paintings and the music back into the rooms together.”

This is the essence of “House of Dreams”, Toronto-based chamber orchestra Tafelmusik’s new multi-media performance. Five countries, five homes, five historic art collections, five places where music was once performed, and five selections of pieces which could once have been played there.  Through the ensemble’s dramatic alchemy of photographs, videos, projection, lighting, choreography and programming, audiences around the world can travel through time and space to experience a truly baroque marriage of music and image.

“It’s a very un-Baroque thing to do,” admits Mackay. “We’ve memorised the entire programme, and to do that we had to rehearse for weeks.  Musicians in the baroque sometimes didn’t rehearse at all.”

For the Bach family’s Leipzig concerts in the neighbouring Bose house, much of the music would have been sight-read.  The living-room of Handel’s house in London was the venue for the first read-through of his opera “Alcina”, a mere five days before the premiere.

“We’re not trying to be authentic in every aspect of what we do,” Mackay says. “We’re trying to be authentic in the sense of bringing the music to life in a way that was true to the composer’s musical intentions. I think authenticity is just a tool for getting at the heart of the music. It’s not an end in itself. We don’t resist change. We embrace the new, but only as it serves our goal of communicating this wonderful music in the most honest way we can to the largest number of people possible.”

The “House of Dreams” project is the second time Tafelmusik has made the unlikely leap from conventional concert to a fully-choreographed, dramatised performance.  The first, their “Galileo Project”, saw them reach for the stars with a memorised account of music linked to baroque astronomy.

“We thought it would be almost impossible to memorise all that music,” Mackay recalls.  “Then, having done it, we discovered that there were a lot of wonderful benefits – that we enjoyed it, that we had better contact with each other and the audience, that we could move around.

“We now see music stands as an enormous physical barrier.  Without the music, we can simply look at each other and be wherever we need to be for each piece.  It gives us so many more options.  And because we have memorised the music, we know it much better than we usually would.”

Tafelmusik has performed its Galileo programme more than sixty times around the world – far more often than any other programme the ensemble had assembled before then.

It also took them Down Under for the first time ever.

“I think it was our favourite tour EVER,” says the ensemble’s musical director, Jeanne Lamon.  “We loved everything about it.  All we’ve been able to think about since then was how to get invited back.”

The task of putting together “House of Dreams” took members of Tafelmusik and their associates on a new series of journeys, both virtual and physical.

“I don’t think these projects could have happened without the internet,” says Mackay.  “The internet makes it possible to very quickly find the world authority on any topic, and to get in touch with them.”

In the case of the Handel house collection, only discovered when an auction catalogue came to light in the mid-1980s, this meant finding the man who had written the leading journal article on the topic and asking for his help.  In Delft, the house which was once home to 20 of Vermeer’s paintings, as well as to a collection of instruments, is now a pancake restaurant.

“Yes,” admits Mackay. “We did eat pancakes there.”

More significantly, she and the ensemble have been able to develop solid relationships with the managing bodies of each of the five houses, some of which are now museums. Some are to become partners for future projects.

“I think the most important thing in our minds is always to play great music, especially when we are memorising it. It has to stand up to the fact that we will live with it for hundreds of hours.”

Both memorised programmes, says Lamon, have brought huge rewards for the effort.

“The challenge has made us grow enormously, and breathed new life into Tafelmusik.”

Interview by Shirley Apthorp

Tafelmusik’s ‘House of Dreams’ will tour Australia 19 February – 14 March 2015. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit;


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Welcome to Musica Viva’s International Concert Season blog. Here you can follow and read more about our wonderful touring artists.

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