Review by Judith Caldwell
Tafelmusik presented an aural and visual history of Canada from 1663 to 1763 in a program conceived, programmed and scripted by Alison MacKay and narrated by Ryan Cunningham, -Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts. The concert was at Melrose United Church on Wednesday, and performed in an afternoon concert before 500 lucky high school children. Tafelmusik is very generous to Hamilton and the local near- capacity audience showed their obvious appreciation. This is the third year they have performed in Hamilton and hopefully they will come again next year. This baroque ensemble is renowned for playing on period instruments.
The first half of the program was French, with readings from diaries, letters, archival records, ships manifests and religious reports as well as Royal Proclamations. The First Nations experience came from poet Armand Garnet Ruffo and were excerpts from his ‘Old Story’ and were wise and beautiful, the French were much more mundane – speaking of a monopoly in the beaver trade. The French believed the beaver was a fresh water fish and as such could be eaten during lent! The music of this half was from Marais, Couperin, Lully and Charpentier and while it was played there were videos of a master craftsman building a birch bark canoe using the bark from a very large birch tree, ribs of cedar curved by steaming, ‘thread’ of fir roots to sew and bind the parts together and finally a parging of fir gum to waterproof the canoe. When completed it was launched and paddled – a very useful thing of immense beauty.
In 1663 there was a major earthquake in Quebec which was foretold by a native woman who had seen it in a dream, no one believed her until it happened. Appropriately Marin Marais wrote very evocative music about an earthquake which was played to stunning black and white visions of tempestuous water from photographer Simeon Posen. In 1665, 39 Chiefs came to Montreal for a major peace conference where much negotiation led to a peace treaty signed by all the chiefs and the French Governor. Unfortunately, the main native orator and negotiator succumbed to influenza while there, so the first half ended with a solemn Te Deum of Charpentier.
After a very brief break the second half became British. The Proclamation of Charles II in 1670 expressed his fondness for the First Nations and expressly forbids taking their lands and hunting grounds without first gaining approval of both the Crown and the natives themselves. The portraits of the four Mohawk chiefs who braved the trip to Britain to visit Queen Anne were shown, one of them was the grandfather of Joseph Brant. They were treated to several concerts while in England featuring the music of Henry Purcell and we heard Come ye sons of Art; King Arthur; Dido & Aeneas; and The Old Bachelor march.
Then while the audience saw how a beaver hat was made we heard a rollicking anonymous song called ‘Johnny cock thy beaver’ which was the term for a beaver hat with the sides folded up – a cocked hat. Music from Handel brought the concert into the 18th century, then a chilling letter from 1870 was read which said that educating Indian children was not working because they went back to the ‘wigwam’ and there the ‘civilizing’ lessons were unlearned so residential schools were recommended. Everyone there knew how that turned out so the final music was by Jean-Phillippe Rameau which expressed the longing for a mutually respectful vision going forward. This was a Canadian history lesson in music, spoken word and visuals which showed the good the bad and the ugly of our last 150 years and ended with hope for the future. A truly impressive evening.