Pacific Baroque Festival in Victoria BC

Written by Marc Destrubé for EARLY MUSIC TODAY

Victoria sits on the southern tip of Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada, a three-hour journey from Vancouver via a beautiful ferry ride through a chain of islands. Its history as a trading post, resupply stop during the 1860’s Gold Rush and naval base makes one all the more surprised at the richness of musical activity it harbours. A sophisticated population of retirees, provincial government workers, drawn by a temperate climate (snow is rare, and Victoria receives half the rainfall as Vancouver), supports an exceptional wealth of activity for a city of 350,000; a fine small symphony orchestra, an adventurous opera company, a resident string quartet at the university (the Lafayette Quartet) and a thriving music conservatory, established in 1965.

Some well-known names from the larger early music world have made Victoria their home: the singers Nancy Argenta, Benjamin Butterfield, Anne Grimm, Ingrid Attrot, and Matthew White (now artistic director of Early Music Vancouver), harpsichordist Colin Tilney and horn player Andrew Clark (Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment). The city supports three early music organizations: Early Music Society of the Islands, established in 1985 and presenting a roster of international performing groups; the Victoria Baroque Players, founded recently by Finnish traverso player Soile Stratkauskas (who studied with Lisa Besnoziuk at the Royal Academy of Music in London) and who have included violinist Kati Debretzeni and keyboardist Steven Devine as guest leaders; and the annual Pacific Baroque Festival (PBF) which began in 2005.

Victoria has evolved into a small city with a vibrant cultural life, and as a mecca for early music.

The PBF is the brainchild of Brian Groos, a Victoria native who, after two decades working around the world as an events planner for international organizations, returned to his hometown and decided to establish a festival of his favourite music at a time of year when there was a dearth of tourists and of cultural activity.  The four day February festival comprises an evening organ recital on the fine organ at Christ Church Cathedral, a Thursday morning ‘coffee’ concert of small scale works and grander events with period-instrument orchestra on the Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as Sunday Choral Evensong in the Cathedral. Traditionally the Saturday event also includes the exceptional Victoria Children’s Choir (winner of several international competitions) and the Cathedral’s St Christopher’s Singers. Concerts are presented by the Victoria Conservatory of Music in their acoustically-stunning Alix Goolden Hall.

Aside from drawing on the goldmine of local residents as soloists, the PBF has in the past included other screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-4-47-29-pminternational talent, including other international talent, including the Italian gambist Paolo Pandolfo, organists Bernard Foccroulle, Edoardo Belotti and Reinhard Jaud, and most recently the German soprano Dorothee Mields and American bass Sumner Thompson in performances of early German repertoire.

The 2017 festival will focus on the music of Telemann and his circle. One sometimes wishes that Telemann had been more like Brahms or Dutilleux, both of whom discarded much of what they wrote; one can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of music that Telemann produced, and the real gems, of which there are many, are sometimes lost among all the lesser jewels. Featured guest for the 2017 festival is the talented multi-instrumentalist and scholar Kenneth Slowik, director of the chamber music programs and curator of instruments at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC who will perform the much-loved Telemann suite for solo viola da gamba and strings, along with works by Graun. The Thursday morning event will feature Telemann’s Fantasias for solo flute, violin and viola da gamba (recently rediscovered), and other events will include several of the ‘Paris’ quartets as well as music by Graupner and Heinichen.

Victoria was known a generation ago as a town ‘for the newly-wed and nearly dead’, but it has evolved into a small city with a vibrant cultural life and as a mecca for early music, in which the PBF plays a vital role. In the words of a recent immigrant from Britain: ‘I wasn’t aware of the fantastic enjoyment that I was about to experience at the PBF. This has been something to rival any concerts on the Southbank in London’.


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