Welcome to all the pleasures

By Lisa Szeker-Madden, February 2013

Nancy Argenta sings Henry Purcell at this year’s Pacific Baroque Festival.

This year’s Pacific Baroque Festival continues its tradition of presenting inventive and engaging programs by exploring the music of Henry Purcell (1659-1695). He was considered the greatest English composer of his age. And, as the centuries wore on without a successor, he simply became the greatest English composer, unequalled until the coming of Benjamin Britten in the 20th century.  

Marc Destrubé, the festival’s artistic director, recognizes that Purcell’s oeuvre is vast enough and diverse enough to support an entire festival: “Purcell’s music provides a rich opportunity, because he wrote music for many different situations: music for the theatre, music for the court and the church, music to be sung in large spaces and music to be played in small spaces. More importantly, he is not just a good composer, but a great one, and all his music is richly inventive and often surprising, which perhaps explains his important influence on composers—and pop musicians—of the 20th century.” The latter comment refers to Pete Townshend of The Who, whose careful studies of Purcell’s music have been a major influence on his work, from Tommy to the present day.

The festival also unites two old friends as soprano Nancy Argenta joins Destrubé and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra. Argenta and Destrubé go way back, having studied together as undergrads at the University of Western Ontario in the days when the Early Music movement was just gaining ground. Their career paths have crossed over the years, allowing them a number of chances to perform together. Says Argenta, “I always enjoy an opportunity to work with Marc!”

Argenta is particularly well-suited to this year’s festival theme as she has received rave reviews and accolades for her performances and CDs of Purcell’s music. Critic and scholar Richard Langham Smith, for instance, gushes that, “She is vibrant and fleet, intelligent and intuitive, delivering Purcell’s lines and his texts with poignancy, power, and humour when required. This is superlative Purcell singing at every turn…” 

Her tremendous success performing Purcell’s works is likely owing to her personal affinity towards his music. As she explains, “Somehow, I feel like I know Purcell. I feel like we’re kind of friends…Singing it just sort of seems the most natural thing to do…The way he sets the English language is so wonderfully imaginative and so instinctive, but also clever. You don’t see that kind of use of the English language until you get to the 20th Century and Benjamin Britten…[Purcell’s song] ‘Fairest Isle’ from King Arthur…could be a pop song. I mean that it’s such an alluring, beautiful melody. It’s the kind of song that I feel everybody would be better off knowing. It would enrich everybody’s lives if they could whistle ‘Fairest Isle.’”

Nancy Argenta (neé Herbison) grew up in Argenta, BC, and comes from a very musical family. Her mother was a piano teacher, who nurtured a love of music in each of her children. Argenta’s brother was also a singer and her sister is a violinist. And all three children studied the piano, which for Argenta was a chore: “Piano practice was never fun.” She quips that, “[Mom] would yell corrections from the kitchen…It was so funny!” 

What Argenta treasures most from her formative years was her opportunity to perform with her mother. She fondly remembers “some lovely times making music together” giving recitals as she became more serious about singing.

Argenta started to make her way as a professional singer in the early ’80s when a crisis of sorts presented itself. Her given name was strikingly similar to that of another, more established Canadian soprano, Nancy Hermiston. It was thus suggested that she change her name to avoid future confusion between them. While Argenta saw the sense of that suggestion professionally, she privately grieved its necessity. Her solution, though, was ingenious. She chose her hometown as her name. She explains, “I love my family, and therefore I was perfectly happy with my name, and so I felt in a certain way a little bereft. If I couldn’t have my family, I’d have my home. So that felt good…I always felt rather happy carrying my home with me, sort of like a turtle.” She also jokes that it helps to have a name that starts with an “A” when she must appear in alphabetical lists.

She has since gone on to enjoy wild success, performing with some of the premiere orchestras and musicians in the world, and she has over 50 recordings to her credit. She now calls Victoria home and is cultivating the talents of young singers on the cusp of professional careers at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. Singers flock to Victoria for the chance to study with Argenta, and, as a humorous take on her success as a teacher, she comments that, “People at the [Conservatory] office are complaining that we’re training our singers too well. They’re hanging around outside the office making far too much noise, so people in the office can’t hear themselves think. I like to take that as a compliment [that the] office staff is getting cross!” 

But all kidding aside, Argenta takes her role very seriously, providing young singers with professional opportunities not to be found in other cities or at other institutions. Advanced singers from the studios of the VCM perform with the Pacific Opera Victoria chorus or even land small roles. They also sing with a variety of professional ensembles in town, like the Victoria Baroque Players, and they have often participated in the Pacific Baroque Festival. 

In an interesting twist at this year’s festival, Argenta will join her students on stage. She cites a fascinating precedent for this. According to Argenta, “I’ve read that in the [East] Indian classical tradition this is done all the time so that a student doesn’t ever play or sing by themselves until they’ve performed a whole bunch of times with their teacher. The act of performing alone [then] seems a very natural outgrowth, rather than some scary, terrifying event. I think it’s a lovely idea in a lot of ways. And probably in Western classical music it would be great if we did more of that.”

On the flip side, Marc Destrubé adds that this is also a great opportunity for festival audiences, “to hear these rising stars before they blast off into the international sphere!” And, indeed, there will be some spectacular musical fireworks at this year’s festival.


The Pacific Baroque Festival presents four concerts from February 21-24, all at Alix Goolden Performance Hall, along with Choral Evensong at 4:30 pm on February 24 at Christ Church Cathedral. Other performers include the Victoria Children’s Choir and the St Christopher’s Singers. See www.pacbaroque.com for more information.

Lisa Szeker-Madden, PhD, teaches Popular and Classical music history courses with Continuing Studies at UVic and at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. She is an active performer of early music, playing recorder with harpist Lillian Slanina in Wind on the Waves.