In front of Tafelmusik’s Ivars Taurins, I’m a criminal. Not that I have the luck to know him personally or professionally, but I was the culprit who was so eager to applaud in the end of one of the greatest performances of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor a few years ago that I had the ending silence Mr. Taurins so solemnly held with his still batons shortened. That performance of this unfinished masterpiece transcendentally finished with a repetition of the opening Kyrie.

Bach’s Mass in B minor Tafelmusik performed this Friday opens and ends with similar expansive solemnity and calmness, although the final moments of chorus (in particular the sopranos), timpani and trumpets are not without euphoria. The concert was deliberately paced for a period performance, but the exuberance easily came when it was called for. The conducting of Mr. Taurins, as usual, was a feast on its own. One of the great aspects of musician as a profession, is their privilege, when intelligently applied, of expressing their deepest personal feelings publicly without being improper.

So how about the audience? The next evening I attended TSO’s concert of Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 4 with Garrick Ohlsson) and Tchaikovsky (Manfred Symphony). The audience were responsive to the point that they applauded after almost every single movement, including the slow ones. This invites smiles from connoisseurs and snobs, but the fact remains that the “no applause between movements” rule was invented relatively recently. Applause between movements was probably even expected in Beethoven and Tchaikovsky’s times, as Alex Ross of the New Yorker discusses in details here.

Putting all those noise from impulsive applause and self-applause to rest, you may still find the gold so eloquently shining in the darkness of silence. I just finished Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s 1993 ethnography In the Realm of the Diamond Queen (about the Indonesian Meratus Dayak people). True to the spirit of the so-called postmodernism, the book is overly verbal and unnecessarily self-referential – I felt compelled to detoxify myself by reading Hemingway’s short story Indian Camp afterwards to have a moment of serenity. However, in retrospect, the book is indeed ethnographically and philosophically rich. There are a lot of wisdoms you may not find anywhere else. If only the author had been more restrained in her eagerness! Probably only if anthropologists are not such a lonely group of people!

I would usually be annoyed if my fellow audience keep chit-chatting or rocking their chairs during a performance (so did one 400-pound dude in a TSO concert of Sibelius’ rousing symphonies last year). But during the Friday’s performance, I was absolutely delighted by a neighboring young girl who kept whispering in her ageing father’s ear. The performance of Bach’s mass is clearly a very lively event for her (probably even more so than to many adults there). And I find myself rocking the bench to the rhythm of Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus:

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Helmuth Rilling conducts Bach's Mass in B minor

Is it sermon or music? Is it liturgy or performance? Is it about faith or enjoyment? These are rather important questions concerning J.S. Bach’s music in particular and music (or “classical music”) in general. The different wording of the two opposite reviews of this week’s TSO performance of Mass in B minor more or less confirms my suspicion that the lasting confrontation between ideology and aesthetics is still going on. Toronto Star’s John Terauds, whose blog  is one of the best on the net, was disappointedbecause the performance under Helmuth Rilling failed to “soar in grandeur, glimmers with light and dances with complex counterpoints”. He also accuses the soloists of being “stiff”. On the other hand, the Globe and Mail’s Ken Winters – a very philosophical music critic – claims that “the musical glory of the Christian world came nearly completely to life at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday night”.

For me, I simply enjoyed the concert in the simplest way. It was not a transcendental experience for me, and it didn’t make me quiver and sweat like some concerts did. It was more like a good Jazz concert full of lively energy, and the variety of musical temperament made the two-plus hours look rather short. I smiled at choir members bobbing their heads back and forth with enthusiasm, the baritone Andrew Forster-Williams walking back to his seat in beautifully dignified stride, and the three handsome trumpeters blowing their faces to complete redness. When the concert finished, I smiled at two fellow chaps in full leather gears (one was completed with a leather cap, the other with red hanky in butt pocket) passing me with lingering excitement into the city lights.

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