Classical Music: Monumental Bach work makes heavy demands on choir

What: Victoria Philharmonic Choir: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion
When/where: Saturday, April 20, 7 p.m., Farquhar Auditorium (University Centre, University of Victoria)
Tickets: $39.50, students $23.50, under-13 free. Call 250-721-8480; online at tickets.uvic.ca; in person at the UVic Ticket Centre

On Saturday, the Victoria Philharmonic Choir, conducted by Peter Butterfield, will celebrate Easter with programming that could not be more appropriate, or more ambitious: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

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This monumental work, one of Bach's musical testaments, makes heavy demands. It calls for two choirs each with its own orchestra, plus many vocal soloists, and its interpretive challenges are considerable, quite apart from the usual historical-performance issues, for the music covers an enormous range and is difficult in every respect — technically, expressively, dramatically, semantically. And it is a long work, hence the 7 p.m. start time.

The VPC has performed the St. Matthew twice before, here in 2010 and in Vancouver in 2011. In 2010, Butterfield had to augment the choir with students from St. Michaels University School (where he teaches) and with singers from two choirs he then directed in Vancouver. But the VPC has since grown — it now numbers about 75 — and this time only a few singers from St. Michaels (mostly sopranos) are being added.

More than 30 instrumentalists have been drawn mostly from the Victoria Symphony, but they also include members of the Victoria Baroque Players and other early-music specialists from here and Vancouver.

Two vocal soloists from out of town, Toronto-based soprano Ellen McAteer and Montreal-based baritone Nathaniel Watson, will appear alongside accomplished locals: mezzo-soprano Sarah Fryer, tenor Benjamin Butterfield, baritone Nathan McDonald (as Judas) and bass-baritone Gary Relyea (as Pilate). The role of Jesus will be sung by baritone Kyron Basu, who teaches at the Victoria Conservatory of Music while pursuing a master’s degree in voice and musicology at the University of Victoria.

The crucial role of the Evangelist — the narrator who binds the work together — will be sung by a Victoria native, tenor Josh Lovell, who has lately been enjoying enviable international success, though his talent has long been recognized at home.

As a young man, Lovell performed frequently with local ensembles. In 2009, when he was 18, he was a soloist in the Victoria Symphony’s Splash concert. The following year, he began a Bachelor of Music degree at UVic, though he was already working professionally. He was a soloist with the VPC in 2011 and 2012, and in 2013 he played Bardolfo in Pacific Opera Victoria’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff — the first time POV had given a major role to an undergraduate student. He returned to POV in 2015, in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

From UVic, Lovell moved to the University of Michigan, where he graduated in 2017. He has also studied at the Universität Mozarteum in Salzburg, the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme in England, the San Francisco Opera and elsewhere. For the past two seasons, he was based at the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, a development program for emerging professionals at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of America’s most prestigious companies. During that time, he appeared in several Lyric Opera productions.

Lovell has now quite evidently emerged: He is about to join the venerable Vienna State Opera, where his work next season will include significant roles in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Handel’s Ariodante, Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. The company's 2019-20 lineup includes artists on the level of Plácido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, Thomas Hampson, Valery Gergiev and Riccardo Muti, so I think we can go out on a limb and call this the Big Leagues.

Lovell, who is managed by IMG Artists, a major international firm, also has a burgeoning concert career, though he has continued to perform here. His recent appearances have included two of the Victoria Symphony’s annual Messiah performances, and two performances of Bach’s St. John Passion, in 2015 (with the VPC) and 2017 (with the Victoria Baroque Players).

Lovell says he has been a soloist in other works by Bach — B-minor Mass, Magnificat, numerous cantatas — but has never before sung the Evangelist in the St. Matthew Passion, though it is a role central to the concert repertoire for tenors.

Given his international success, we may assume that opportunities to hear Lovell back home will become increasingly rare, so keep that in mind when planning your Easter weekend.

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