Going baroque in Victoria

By Linda Rogers, February 2011

Early music is enjoying a renaissance in Victoria.

What is more appropriate to the season of lengthening days than the word enlightenment? If winter is our Dark Age, the annual Pacific Baroque Festival, which has brought the sound of light to Victoria for a decade of Februarys, strikes promising notes for the gardening seasons.

This year’s festival is designated Stylus Fantasticus: Music for Bishops and Emperors, after the baroque flowering in Austrian music that followed the Thirty Years War, a shadow time for artists. The play of light and darkness, chiaroscuro, which gives an intense vitality to music of the Baroque period, is a metaphor that appears to reinvent itself at appropriate times.

Stylus Fantasticus borrows from the fantasia, improvisation, and variation on religious themes tempered by folk idiom and the Renaissance fascination with the human story. This music, notably that of composers Heinrich von Biber and Johan Schmelzer, leading composers of the 17th Century, was created to vault the emotional architectural spaces of the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholic Church invited artists and musicians to capture the imagination of Christians tempted by the asceticism of the Reformation.

Where better to present this music than Alix Goolden Hall, where intimacy is possible in an acoustically lovely context, and Christ Church Cathedral, with its Helmut Wolff organ? Now that the Casavant organ at the conservatory has been brought back to life, the Alix Goolden Hall has another layer of glorious auditory patina.

Pacific Baroque Festival manager Brian Groos sings the praises of both venues. “The Alix Goolden Hall is well made for the performance of Baroque music. Christ Church Cathedral has a different atmosphere but is ideally suited for an organ concert. Because of the growing international reputation of the festival, it is easier to tempt Europe’s top organists to perform here.” 

Not that there is any shortage of talent on the ground. Violinist Marc Destrubé, the festival’s artistic director, describes the West Coast as “a hot spot for high-level performers on historical instruments.” As examples, he mentions the musicians of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra (which he founded) in Vancouver, as well as other talented performers in Victoria and Seattle. “We are also blessed with a number of exceptional vocal soloists with international early music careers who make their homes locally and have graced our stage—or have furnished us with excellent and well-coached students to whom we can give the opportunity to perform with period instruments in a professional setting.”

Destrubé himself has an impressive list of accolades and achievements. A native Victorian, he is a founding member of the Tafelmusik Orchestra, and has appeared with many of the leading period instrument orchestras in North America and Europe. He is presently co-concertmaster of Frans Bruggen’s Orchestra of the 18th Century, and first violinist of the Axelrod String Quartet, the Smithsonian Institute’s quartet-in-residence. 

Besides acting as artistic director of this year’s Pacific Baroque Festival, Destrubé will be performing (with others) in one event: “17th Century Virtuoso Violin Music, with Some Animals.”

The festival also offers the chance to hear renowned talents from elsewhere. This year, Victoria audiences will be treated to Reinhard Jaud, organist and custodian of the 1558 Ebert organ in Innsbruck, Austria who will play baroque music written for church canticles at the Cathedral. That will be elixir for the musical palate. Destrubé says, “I think audiences like to bite into a musical meal knowing that all the dishes go well together and form a coherent whole, and that they together form a larger picture of music from a given time and place. It also gives one an opportunity to serve up music that the audience may have never encountered before, mixed with more familiar morsels.”

This year’s festival explores the playful and grassroots side of the genre as well, which, true to the Renaissance, looks for the immortal spirit in the phenomenal world. Opening the door for Romantic composers, the masters of the baroque integrated the singing lines of folk music in their complex arrangements. The concert “Peasants, Gypsies, Bagpipes and Nightwatchmen,” February 4 at Alix Goolden Hall, will address the commonality of music and dancing in European culture and especially at the courts of Austria, whose most famous expatriate, Marie Antoinette, brought haute bucolic fashion to le petit trianon at Versailles. 

The artistic director orchestrates this cross-pollination. “Destrubé,” Brian Groos reports, “is a truly gifted musician who has chosen beautiful programs and inspired the performers.” Festivals at their best provide opportunities for performers to expand their own parameters and benefit from interaction with other artists while developing the knowledge and experience of their audiences. This has been the experience of PBF, which provides an opportunity to hear less-performed music by masters of the genre. Both audiences and sponsors have embraced the growth envisioned by its hard-working organizers. 

Destrubé agrees community support has been essential in ensuring the success of the festival. A high point was “…seeing the musicians’ faces when they were checking into the Magnolia Hotel for the first festival (and where we’ve enjoyed staying ever since). I’m sure the music-making has been better as a result!”

Ever gracious, Destrubé also says, “Two other important factors in the success of the festival are the devotion, persistence and hard-work of the organizer, Brian Groos, and the fact that the Early Music Society of the Islands had already created an audience in Victoria for baroque music performed at a high level and with historical sensitivity.” 

Another of the festival’s ongoing partnerships is with the Victoria Children’s Choir, which will perform von Biber’s Requiem at Alix Goolden the evening of February 5. Destrubé says that, “Without question the rehearsals and performances with the young people of the Victoria Children’s Choir have been the most precious experiences; just seeing their faces when they heard us play the opening bars of Vivaldi’s Gloria a few years ago, or their absolute concentration when singing a very difficult Bach Motet last year.”

Moving young performers and audiences from Bieber to Biber is an exciting proposition. Destrubé says in the future they may consider holding “a concurrent concert for children, a kind of ‘enlightened baby-sitting,’ so that parents can go to one concert while their children are looked after musically in another room in the same building.” 

Now that is le plus ultra day care, the Pacific Baroque Festival growing baroque from lullaby to requiem.

Pacific Baroque Festival, February 3-6, has its calendar of events at www.pacbaroque.com.

Linda Rogers, Victoria’s Poet Laureate, is also a lyricist.