The Early Music Society of the Islands takes an admirably liberal view, chronologically and stylistically, of what constitutes "early music," and often champions repertoire under-represented even in early-music circles. In other words, it's not all Bach and Handel.
EMSI, whose 2011-12 season ended last Saturday, outdid itself this season, offering repertoire spanning almost 1,000 years.
The season opener, on Oct. 1, featured music for winds and piano by Mozart and Beethoven, including one work composed in 1800, the year widely regarded as the outer limit of "early."
The March 3 concert, by contrast, featured the oldest music EMSI has ever programmed in its 27-year history: hymns by Kassia, a ninth-century Byzantine nun.
Actually, one concert this season, on Jan. 27, was all Bach and Handel, but had something special to offer: the much-anticipated, twice-deferred local debut of British soprano Emma Kirkby, who has long been one of the most celebrated early-music performers. She was joined by highprofile colleagues, and the concert did not disappoint; still, two concerts in March featuring more rarefied repertoire and less famous performers actually proved considerably more earopening.
As rendered by the German ensemble VocaMe, Kassia's hymns, ostensibly simple chants from the infancy of notated Western music, blossomed into extraordinarily beautiful, sensuous, deeply expressive works; it was thrilling to discover such richness and power in music almost 1,200 years old. (Remember that the next time you hear about the durability of "classic rock.")
On March 31, tenor Jeffrey Thompson and the French ensemble La RÃªveuse performed court airs and instrumental music of the French Baroque with virtuosity and operatic fervour and great sensitivity to text-setting, though also with refinement and, occasionally, breath-stopping intimacy.
And their encore? Over the Rainbow, rendered quasi-Baroquishly and with heartbreaking beauty. Earopening, indeed.
Alas, neither of these programs packed the house the way Kirkby (and the Dec. 17 Baroque Christmas concert) did, though on both occasions the audience was plainly enthralled - the more so, surely, because they were getting offthebeaten-track music most of them had probably never heard before.
This season also included a centuries-spanning program, on Oct. 29, of musical settings of the Song of Songs, and two concerts exploring the enormous influence the innovative Italian music of the early 17th century exerted on German composers.
The Nov. 26 concert, by Â¡Sacabuche!, focused on Venetian-style vocal and instrumental music from around 1600, while last Saturday's concert focused on sonatas, played with feeling, flair and wit by four members of the Apollo Ensemble, from The Netherlands - two violins, dulcian (an early bassoon), and harpsichord.
EMSI has already announced its 2012-13 season, which will again range widely through periods and cultures, genres and media, sampling repertoire both familiar and rare and showcasing local early-music specialists as well as distinguished visitors from around the world (among them the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Stile Antico). And 2013-14 - fingers crossed - may include another EMSI milestone: a staged French Baroque opera.
(Details of the 2012-13 season should be available by May 1 at earlymusic societyoftheislands.ca.)
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A note on the forthcoming Weekend of a Thousand - well, three - Choirs.
On Saturday, the Victoria Philharmonic Choir, conducted by Peter Butterfield, will present popular choruses (interspersed with arias) from two centuries' worth of operas and operettas, by composers ranging from Purcell to Puccini (8 p.m., First Metropolitan United Church; $20/$10, 12 and under free; vpchoir.ca). The 60-voice choir will be joined by pianist Kim Cousineau, two vocal soloists, and (for Verdi's Anvil Chorus) hardware borrowed from Crescent Moon Forge and Ironworks.
Meanwhile, the Via Choralis Chamber Choir, conducted by Nicholas Fairbank, will give two performances of Seven Ages of Song, a program spanning seven centuries and including new works by two young Victoria composers, Nathan Friedman and Rowan Hensley (Saturday, 7: 30 p.m. First Unitarian Church; Sunday, 2: 30 p.m., St. Elizabeth's Church, Sidney; $15/$8; viachoralis.ca).
Finally, on Sunday, the women's choir Ensemble Laude, conducted by Elizabeth MacIsaac, will present a typically wide-ranging, multicultural program, The Garden (3 p.m., St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church; by donation; ensemblelaude.org). Fairbank will figure here, too: his new composition Seulete Suy - the first work ever commissioned by Laude - will receive its première.
Running about five minutes, Seulete Suy is based on writings by the 14thcentury French poet and feminist Christine de Pisan; the text, in Middle French, expresses the feelings of a woman abandoned by her lover and longing for a life free from the "harshness" of men. The title says it all: "Alone am I."
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