Classical Music: Victoria musicians combine new, old

What: Victoria Composers Collective: Omni Temporum.
When/where: Thursday, Feb. 13, refreshments 7 p.m., Q&A 7:30, concert 8, Church of Truth (111 Superior St.).
Tickets: $20 door, $15 advance. Online at brownpapertickets.com.
What: Emily Carr String Quartet: Music: Inside Out — Tchaikovsky.

When/where: Saturday, Feb. 15, refreshments 10:30 a.m., concert 11, Chief and Petty Officer’s Mess, CFB Esquimalt (1575 Lyall St.).
Tickets: $25, students free. Call 250-386-6121; online at rmts.bc.ca; in person at the Royal and McPherson Box Office and Ivy’s Bookshop.

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Tonight, the Victoria Composers Collective, which is dedicated to new music by local composers, will mount its first concert of early music.

That is not as paradoxical as it sounds. There is considerable overlap between the early-music and new-music communities. One often encounters performers who specialize in these two repertoires, contemporary composers who draw inspiration from very old music and listeners whom one sees at early- and new-music concerts but not at the symphony or the opera.

These two communities apparently have in common a preference for novelty over familiarity, and so a longing to escape the standard repertoire.

The Victoria Composers Collective gave its inaugural concert in 2014, and its activities have been impressively wide-ranging.

It has given concerts in many venues (Phillip T. Young Recital Hall, Wood Hall, Open Space, St. Mary’s Anglican Church, the Atrium). Since 2015, it has participated in the annual Oak Bay New Music Festival, and since 2016, at the Copper Owl, it has offered an annual concert, Woodstockhausen, devoted to “new music for rock band” (the first of these yielded a CD). In 2015 and 2018, it sponsored tours of the B.C. Interior.

The collective now has 23 members — composers, performers and “concert curators,” of very diverse backgrounds and musical proclivities — and another 10 affiliate performers.

Tonight’s concert has some early music in its original form, including famous solo songs by Giulio Caccini and John Dowland, but also pieces in modern arrangements, mostly by two of the collective’s members, Alex Jang and Maria Eduarda Mendes Martins (who are married). These range from 14th-century chants to a late-Renaissance French chanson to one of Bach’s cello suites.

The program also includes a new song, Lyra, set to a text by Newfoundland poet Mark Callanan, composed by Nathan Friedman as a wedding present for Martins and Jang. These same three will also serve as the concert’s performers (voice, guitar, percussion, electronics), joined by Nolan Krell on electric guitar.

A couple of weeks ago, this column had a little something to say about Tchaikovsky, specifically about widespread misinformation concerning his personality and death and his last work, the Pathétique Symphony.

There will be more Tchaikovsky on offer this Saturday morning courtesy of the Emily Carr String Quartet’s series Music: Inside Out, in which a single major chamber work is discussed in depth (by pianist and lecturer Robert Holliston) and then performed, in a very pleasant setting with a peerless sea view.

This time, the work is Souvenir de Florence, a string sextet Tchaikovsky completed in 1890, three years before his death (from cholera, from cholera, from cholera — keep saying it until it sticks).

Having promised a work to the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society, he began sketching the sextet in 1887, but set it aside. He spent the first half of 1890 in Florence, where his principal occupation was his opera The Queen of Spades, but he also took up the sextet again, and completed it that summer back home in Russia. It was his final contribution to his small but exquisite body of chamber music.

Souvenir de Florence is no lightweight piece of program music. It has four movements and takes a little over half an hour to play. The music is substantial and rich and original, with an often high emotional temperature, and is masterly in terms of both construction and sonority. Tchaikovsky declared that writing for “six independent yet homogeneous voices” was “unimaginably difficult,” and compared the process to transcribing orchestral music. The result, not surprisingly, was effectively a symphony for sextet, and it is often performed by string orchestras.

The music calls for a conventional quartet plus a second viola and cello. On Saturday, those parts will be taken by this year’s participants in the ECSQ’s Young Artist Mentorship Program: violist Danielle Tsao and cellist Lexie Jana Krakowski.

Tsao, 18, a first-year student at the University of Victoria, was the Victoria Symphony’s Splash soloist in 2018 and joined the ECSQ last May in a Mozart quintet. Krakowski, a Grade 11 student at Oak Bay High School, studies at the Victoria Conservatory of Music and plays in the Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra.

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