Jeanne Lamon, Who Led an Early-Music Ensemble, Dies at 71

Jeanne Lamon, Who Led an Early-Music Ensemble, Dies at 71

06/26/2021

Jeanne Lamon, an accomplished violinist who was music director of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir for 33 years, helping to build it into one of the world’s most acclaimed baroque ensembles, died on June 20 in Victoria, British Columbia. She was 71.

A spokeswoman for the ensemble said the cause was cancer.

Ms. Lamon, who lived in Victoria, took the helm of Tafelmusik in 1981, just two years after the group, based in Toronto, was founded by Kenneth Solway and Susan Graves. Under her guidance — and with her often leading from the first-violin chair — the group developed an international reputation, performing all over the world in major concert halls, at universities, in churches, even in pubs.

Tafelmusik also became known for its recordings, releasing dozens of albums on Sony Classical and other labels during her tenure.

Ms. Lamon and the ensemble pursued a goal of rendering the works they played as their composers would have envisioned them, employing period instruments in the process. One of Tafelmusik’s earliest New York appearances was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Ms. Lamon played the museum’s 17th-century Stradivarius.

The results could be striking, as in a 1995 recording of Bach violin concertos.

“Beyond its impeccable discipline and luminous textures, the group displays an expressive sensibility that transcends the instruments, whether strung with gut or wire,” Lawrence B. Johnson wrote in a review of that album for The New York Times. “That expressive empathy is most powerfully conveyed in the Adagio of the E major Concerto, where, over a measured tread, Jeanne Lamon spins out a radiant, sad line that might be a wordless aria from a Bach Passion.”

Yet Ms. Lamon was not content simply to recreate centuries-old music; she wanted to make it appealing to a modern audience.

Never was that more evident than in “The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres,” a multimedia performance piece featuring the music of Vivaldi and others, projections of astronomical and other scenes, an actor providing narration, and an unfettered orchestra. For the piece, conceived and scripted by Alison Mackay, the ensemble’s bassist, and unveiled in Calgary in 2009, which the United Nations had declared the International Year of Astronomy, Ms. Lamon had her players memorize their parts so they could move around the performance space, including into the audience, while playing.

“Simply put, this is one of the best, most imaginative shows based on classical music seen here in years,” John Terauds wrote in The Toronto Star when the work was performed in that city later that year. “Including intermission, these two hours pass as if they were 10 minutes. There isn’t a single dull moment or off note.”

Memorizing a full evening’s worth of music was a tall order for Ms. Lamon and the other players, but she found the experience liberating.

“I’m starting to see music stands as a wall between myself and the audience,” she told The Houston Chronicle in 2014, the year she stepped down as music director, when “The Galileo Project” was performed at the Wortham Theater Center in Houston.

The piece also traveled to Pennsylvania State University that year. In a video interview pegged to that performance, Ms. Lamon said she thought the work showed a path to broadening the audience for early music and other classical genres.

“You don’t just have to play pops concerts, which is what some symphony orchestras resort to when they want to fill the seats,” she said.

“I believe dumbing it down is not the way to go,” she added. “I think people just want to feel more a part of it.”

Jeanne Lamon was born on Aug. 14, 1949, in Queens and grew up in Larchmont, N.Y. Her father, Isaac, was in real estate, and her mother, Elly, was a teacher. Ms. Lamon said whatever musical genes she had probably came from her mother, who played piano.

She was entranced by the violin at an early age.

“I remember at the age of 3 seeing Isaac Stern playing on television,” she told The Toronto Star in 1986, “and I wanted to do what he was doing. I told my parents immediately I wanted a violin.”

She had to wait until she was 6 before her parents bought her an instrument, and it was a recorder, not a violin. But she kept after them, and at 7 she got the instrument she wanted.

“Learning to play an instrument is very much like learning a foreign language,” she said. “If you learn it young, it becomes part of your body.”

Her father, though, thought a general education was important, so instead of going to a conservatory she attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music. Then she went to Amsterdam to hone her violin skills, studying under Herman Krebbers, concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. While there she heard a concert by baroque players.

“I instantly fell in love,” she said.

She began to study with Sigiswald Kuijken, one of the world’s leading baroque violin players.

Back in the United States, she was performing with various ensembles when Mr. Solway and Ms. Graves asked her to come to Toronto to direct a guest program with their new group. They made her music director.

Among her legacies is the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute, which trains musicians in baroque performance. In 2006 the organization established the Jeanne Lamon Instrument Bank, which loans period instruments to students.

Ms. Lamon’s many awards included the Order of Canada. She is survived by her partner of many years, the cellist Christina Mahler; a brother, Ed; and a sister, Dorothy Rubinoff.

Ms. Lamon said part of the appeal of playing early music was that it involved a certain amount of detective work and guesswork, since composers of old often left only the sketchiest of scores.

“We are expected to do a lot of interpreting, such as adding dynamics, phrasings and ornaments,” she told The Globe and Mail in 2001. “That’s what attracts a lot of us to playing this music. It’s a very creative process. You do a lot of research to figure out what a composer might have done, but in the final analysis you do what you do, because no two people would do it alike.”

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