Classical Music: Baroque players pay tribute to Concert Spirituel

What: Victoria Baroque Players: Grand Orchestral Suites
When/where: Friday, 7:30 p.m., Church of St. John the Divine (1611 Quadra St.).
Tickets: $30, seniors $25, students and children $5. Call 250-486-6121; online at rmts.bc.ca; in person at the McPherson Box Office, Munro’s Books and Ivy’s Bookshop.

What: Music at Wentworth Villa: Vetta String Quartet
When/where: Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Wentworth Villa (1156 Fort St.).
Tickets: $40, students $25. Online at eventbrite.ca.

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The Victoria Baroque Players, whose ninth season will begin on Friday, has collaborated with some top-ranked guest artists over the years, including violinist Jeanne Lamon, who was music director of the renowned Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, in Toronto, from 1981 to 2014.

Lamon has played with and directed the VBP twice, in 2013 and 2018, both times in special Christmas programs for the Early Music Society of the Islands. On Friday, however, she will make her first appearance in the VBP’s regular season, and we could see more such appearances in the future, given that she moved to Victoria this summer.

Friday’s program pays tribute to the Concert Spirituel, in Paris, which ran from 1725 to 1790 and counts as the first important and long-lived concert series in the modern sense of the term.

(These were called “spiritual concerts” because they were founded to provide entertainment during the Lenten season and Holy Week and on other religious holidays, when opera houses were closed.)

Concert Spirituel programs initially focused on sacred vocal works, but also featured instrumental music, including curtain-raising overtures, symphonies and concertos. (The inaugural concert, on March 18, 1725, opened with Corelli’s popular Christmas Concerto.) This series established a pattern for 18th-century concerts, whose programs freely mixed vocal and instrumental repertoire.

Friday’s program comprises instrumental music only, dating between 1703 and 1765, by composers (French and otherwise) who were popular in Paris and had direct connections with the Concert Spirituel. As many as 17 performers will participate, in music mostly featuring horns and woodwinds, in addition to strings.

The repertoire includes a piece by Michel-Richard de Lalande, from a set of “symphonies for the king’s dinner;” a chaconne by Jean-Marie Leclair; a “sonate en symphonie” by Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville; a concerto grosso by Francesco Geminiani; and a grand seven-movement suite that Telemann wrote in 1765, at age 84, two years before his death.

The concert will close with Haydn’s early Symphony No. 30, also from 1765, a short three-movement work nicknamed Alleluia because its first movement quotes a Gregorian chant.

Music by Beethoven will be especially thick on the ground next year, and justifiably so, as 2020 will mark the 250th anniversary of his birth. Here in Victoria, the special programming for 2020 will include complete cycles of Beethoven’s symphonies, string quartets and violin sonatas.

Some performers are starting the celebration early, in the first half of the 2019-20 season, including the Vetta String Quartet, a house ensemble of the Vancouver-based series Vetta Chamber Music, whose 34th season will begin this weekend. On Sunday, in between concerts in Vancouver and on Salt Spring Island, the quartet will appear at Wentworth Villa, the restored heritage house and architectural museum on Fort Street, now in its fourth season as a concert venue.

The quartet comprises Vetta’s artistic director, violinist Joan Blackman, and three colleagues: violinist Maria Larionoff (from Seattle), violist David Harding (from Pittsburgh) and cellist Eugene Osadchy, a co-founder of Vetta now based in Texas.

Sunday’s program will open with Beethoven’s C-minor quartet, the fourth of six quartets he published as Op. 18 in 1801. Vetta is promoting this as “the first quartet Beethoven ever wrote,” though there is actually no evidence that this is true. As far as we know, the piece dates from 1799, but some scholars have always suspected, on internal evidence, that it was based on earlier material perhaps dating back to Beethoven’s youth in Bonn. (Translation: They don’t think the piece is very good.)

The program also includes Shostakovich’s short, uncomplicated, very entertaining String Quartet No. 1, from 1938, and Tchaikovsky’s great String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Minor, from 1876, written in memory of a friend, the Moscow-based Czech violinist Ferdinand Laub, who had died the year before — hence the work’s funereal slow movement, which mimics the Orthodox memorial service. (Laub’s ensemble had given the premières of Tchaikovsky’s first two quartets.)

Concerts at Wentworth Villa, whose music room seats at most about 100, tend to sell out, though waiting lists are taken and can be accessed online (wentworthvilla.com). Usually, at least a few last-minute ticket-buyers can be accommodated.

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