The ultimate unplugged music

By Amy Reiswig, November 2013

Over the past 30 years there’s been a renaissance of “early music” and Victoria is on its map.

When I decided to move to Victoria from Montreal seven years ago, my arts-loving friends worried “You’re going to be so starved for culture!” Hardly. One might argue that a city the size of Victoria can’t be expected to compete with a city like Montreal, but in at least one area, thanks to the people-power of volunteerism, little Victoria does just that. 

The Early Music Society of the Islands (EMSI) is an extraordinary local success story now in its 29th season of staging a world-class annual concert series of local and international performers. The early 1980s saw a surge of interest in early music—generally, music composed before 1800—all across North America, with enthusiasm for historically informed performance on period instruments. 

James Young, artistic director of EMSI explains his own attraction: “It is the ultimate unplugged music. It is music performed as it was at the time of composition, on hand-crafted instruments, without any artificial aids. This gives early music an emotional directness lacked by some other music. It is music that has stood the test of time.” 

And so EMSI was founded in 1985 by a group of amateur and professional musicians who loved and wanted to promote early music on Vancouver Island. A non-profit society run entirely by volunteers, EMSI has grown from putting on a four-concert series, where it was a triumph if they drew 100 people, to now an annual eight or ten-concert series with a steady audience of about 400 per show. 

“There is no comparably-sized city that has a series like this,” says Young, noting that EMSI’s offerings directly compare—often drawing the same performers—to any concert series you’d find in Boston, Seattle, Vancouver and, yes, Montreal. The list of past performers is a veritable who’s who of international early music: Tafelmusik, Anonymous 4, Jordi Savall, Baltimore Consort, London Baroque, Stile Antico, Sequentia, Dame Emma Kirkby, Nancy Argenta and many, many more. 

Young, a philosophy professor at UVic and amateur harpsichordist, says that there are currently no professional musicians on EMSI’s board, so it’s doubly remarkable that all of this is accomplished by, as he says, “just ordinary music lovers.” 

So how do they do it?

One factor is simply financial which, at every turn, is based on and reflects community support. Young explains that while about 30 percent of EMSI’s funding comes from donations, including private individuals and foundations, Heritage Canada, the CRD Arts Council and an endowment fund managed by the Victoria Foundation, 70 percent is earned income—ticket sales and merchandise like CDs. “That’s an extremely high percentage for a concert presenter to have,” Young observes. 

EMSI has made it easy for the community to afford to support the series. “We try to keep ticket prices down, which we can do because of the volunteer nature of the society,” says Young. “Our office is a cell phone,” he laughs, and as a result of keeping costs down, “tickets are about $15-$20 cheaper here than you would often find for the same group in Vancouver,” Young notes proudly. 

“Victoria has always supported music well,” Young says. “Time after time after time when I talk with the musicians after the concerts, they say: ‘Wow! What a fabulous audience you have.’ Victoria audiences are enthusiastic, appreciative and knowledgeable. It’s common for me to hear ‘This was the best audience we’ve had on this whole tour.’” 

Perhaps Victorians just know how to appreciate that stripped-down, purer sound as compared to so much of today’s over-produced music and enjoy, as I do, being transported to a different time and place through the aural atmosphere of unique historical and cultural contexts. No matter what the many personal reasons for such overwhelming local response to early music, one can’t help but think the audience itself is part of why so many performers apply to perform in EMSI’s series, with Young getting about 40 proposals a year. “Everyone in early music knows we’re here,” Young beams. “Maybe it was the way the society grew up, starting small and building locally, but we have grown up a very loyal audience that is very open to hearing new music—well, new old music,” he laughs.

That loyalty is also a testament to the quality of the EMSI board and their choices, because people have learned that no matter what EMSI puts on, it will be good. “We’ve built up a trust relationship with the audience,” Young explains. “Even if they don’t know the music they’re coming to hear, they know it will be interesting.” While the board decides collectively on the series performers, Young, who has been involved with EMSI since 1990, is the main point person responsible for negotiating with artists and their agents. He is very clear that everyone at EMSI has consciously decided to avoid the trap of just bringing in old favourites and is instead focused on artists who are fresh and innovative yet accessible. “We put on concerts that we hope people will like. We never put on music we think people should like,” he says. 

And interesting music abounds in November, an unusual month with three concerts, and of course Young is excited about them all. First, on Saturday, November 2, at Alix Goolden is ¡Sacabuche!, a sackbut, violin and vocal ensemble based at Indiana University and directed by Canadian baroque trombonist Linda Pearse. They’re performing a program called “The Golden Era of the Polish Baroque” that brings to new life the works of Polish composers who, as Young explains it, “give us a Polish take on the Italian style of music of the 17th century. It will be an ear-opener for everyone there.”

Then, on Saturday November 23, also at Alix Goolden is quartet Pallade Musica from Montreal, Grand Prize winners at the 2012 Early Music America Baroque Performance Competition in New York. Their performance will be “Terreno e vago,” an evening of Italian chamber music for violin, cello, and basso continuo. “This is basically the Italian music that influenced those Polish composers,” Young says, noting that “In the early 17th century there was a break from the music of the 16th century. It was deliberately experimental, in the stile moderno. So one of the fascinating things about this repertoire is its freshness and vibrancy, its daring, despite being 400 years old.”

The following night, Sunday, November 24, they shift venues to Oak Bay United Church for a solo lute, chitarrino and Renaissance guitar performance by Pallade Musica member Esteban La Rotta, who will introduce audiences to some of the first work composed specifically for the lute as a solo instrument (versus as accompaniment for singers).

Aside from such a tremendous concert series based on tremendous work, EMSI also gives back to the community through a $1000 bursary for local musicians which can be put towards their studies or putting on a concert, and the free loan of their harpsichord to anyone putting on a concert that might need one, which “happens more often than you might think,” says Young. Apparently it’s been used by the Victoria Symphony, Pacific Opera Victoria and the Victoria Philharmonic Choir and been to Saltspring and Nanaimo. “It’s a well-travelled harpsichord.”

More about EMSI and upcoming concerts at www.earlymusicsocietyoftheislands.ca. 

Writer Amy Reiswig plays percussion in early folk group Banquo Folk Ensemble www.banquo.ca.