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Tafelmusik guest conductor Elisa Citterio brings quirky, stylish sound

Italian violinist Elisa Citterio was a guest conductor for Tafelmusik.

Water Music
Koerner Hall
Thursday, September 22, 2016

The people at Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra may be coy about when they're going to announce a successor for Jeanne Lamon as music director of the orchestra, but it's likely that, this time next year, Tafelmusik will have a new leader.

And although this is no secret, and the search for the new Lamon has been ongoing for two years, there was a poignancy in the air at Tafelmusik's opening concert on Thursday night, an understanding that the sound and spirit of Tafelmusik is not going to stay the same as it moves forward. And that's a daunting, somewhat nerve-wracking prospect, because Tafelmusik's recent past is so rich and loved by its faithful fans.

And the orchestra has also been coy about exactly who is in the running to replace Lamon, although, since playing with the orchestra (ideally on more than one occasion) is one of the criteria for selection of the new music director, it's pretty clear that at least some of this season's concerts are something of an audition for the various guest conductors who are leading the band. It makes the occasions feel a bit like a concert, and a bit like an episode of America's Got Talent.

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So, I feel safe in posing the question of what Tafelmusik's future might be like if Italian violinist Elisa Citterio, Thursday's guest conductor, became Tafelmusik's musical leader.

And, on the basis of that concert – at least to one set of ears – the future might be very interesting indeed.

Tafelmusik is a notoriously collaborative enterprise, so it's hard to ascribe its sound to a single person. But Jeanne Lamon's Tafelmusik was noted for its flexible, but committed discipline, for its speedy, energetic, wild attacks on the Baroque repertoire. Tafelmusik under Lamon was tight, unsentimental, thrilling.

Elisa Citterio seems to bring other musical qualities to the table. Her playing and conducting is more sinuous, more supple than we've heard in Tafelmusik's past, exchanging that power of the old Tafelmusik for a quirkier, more varied, more stylish sound. It was very appealing, although it took a bit of getting used to. And it seemed the Tafelmusik musicians, although they played beautifully, felt the same. Eyes were constantly on Citterio, to find her downbeats, and tempi, and dynamics. Tafelmusik under Lamon was a smooth, almost telepathic performing unit. Citterio was a different challenge. It was an ambitious program Citterio led, starting with a Bach suite (with wonderful playing by brass and tympani), moving on to some dances by Jean-Philippe Rameau, and ending with a good hour of the famous Water Music by George Frederick Handel. Each selection got stronger as the concert progressed. Although there were fine moments in the Bach, with internal voices being given unusual prominence, and fine ensemble playing, things seemed a bit stiff. Better were the Rameau dances – stylish, playful and filled with the spirit of movement, light and pleasure. It was as though Shakespeare's Puck was flashing before us.

Better again was the Handel (although best of all in some ways was the little encore the band played at concert's end, when they really started to click with one another – it will be fascinating to hear how this group sounds Sunday afternoon after four concerts together). But the Water Music was the highlight of the evening, turning some of the world's most famous tunes into a fresh, new, exciting experience. Citterio took wildly different tempi for some of the sections – the famous Air zipped by so fast (and so beautifully) that at first I didn't know what piece I was listening to. Other sections were illuminated by fascinating and compelling new accents placed to further illuminate the music. Although that forward drive that was for so long Tafelmusik's trademark was missing from parts of the performance, it was more than offset by Citterio's considered originality. This is a musician who thinks.

The reaction of the audience at concert's end was illuminating. Generally, you can track the intensity of applause at a successful concert down to the scientific second. It starts out strong, progressively weakens and eventually peters out. At the end of the Citterio's Water Music, the opposite happened. Applause kept getting louder as it continued – it was as though the familiar Tafelmusik audience had been a bit stunned by what it heard, reacted initially with surprise, and then realized it had actually enjoyed itself. It was as though the orchestra, audience and conductor were getting to know each another on a first date, and getting to like each another as well.

I don't know if Elisa Citterio is actually a candidate for Tafelmusik's music directorship, but whether she is or not, it sunk in on Thursday that whoever takes this job is going to bring something new to this band, and that that newness will take some accommodating, on all fronts. It undoubtedly will be a complex, and hopefully also a liberating, experience.

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