Popular Vox in the Stars concert has dramatic setting

What: Vox Humana Chamber Choir: Vox in the Stars.
When/where: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 p.m., Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (5071 West Saanich Rd.).
Tickets: $35. In advance only, online at voxhumanachoir.ca.
What: Mysterious Barricades: Concert for suicide awareness.
When/where: Saturday, 8 p.m., Phillip T. Young Recital Hall (School of Music, Maclaurin Building, University of Victoria).
Tickets: Admission free; reserve seats at mysteriousbarricades.org/victoria.

This weekend, the chamber choir Vox Humana will once more launch its season by performing beneath the century-old Plaskett Telescope at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, which has been designated a National Historic Site.

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Vox in the Stars has become a popular annual event, for good reasons. The setting is striking and dramatic, especially when, at sunset, during the concert, the observatory’s domed roof (weather permitting) is opened to the sky. Moreover, this venue is both acoustically and atmospherically appropriate to the kind of contemporary repertoire favoured by Vox Humana.

The inaugural Vox in theStars program, in 2011, comprised a single work, Gloria Patri (1988), by Estonian composer Urmas Sisask, a hypnotic cycle of 24 hymns based on a five-note scale Sisask derived from the orbits of the planets.

That piece remains a touchstone for Vox in the Stars. Several movements from it will be performed this weekend, along with another piece repeated each year: Canadian composer Kathleen Allan’s Thou My Soul, which was commissioned especially for Vox in the Stars and incorporates the rotation and opening of the dome.

Of the pieces new to this year’s program, all but one are by Canadian composers, among them several locals.

This weekend’s program will be performed three times, though only about 100 tickets are available per concert. At last report sellouts were virtually certain, and as tickets are available in advance only there is no point in crashing the venue with hope in your eyes.

So maybe consider this an early heads-up for next year.

Sept. 10 was World Suicide Prevention Day, and since 2016 this date has been marked by a special event called Mysterious Barricades, “a cross-Canada concert for suicide awareness, prevention and hope.”

This year, the event comprises free public concerts in 15 cities representing nine provinces. The first concert was on Sept. 5, and the last three will take place this Saturday in B.C. cities: Kelowna, Vancouver and finally Victoria.

All 15 concerts (some pre-recorded, some live) will also appear online (mysteriousbarricades.org) as a continuous 17-hour video on Saturday, concluding with live streams of the three B.C. concerts. (The video will remain on the website until Sept. 21.)

This annual event was devised by Edmonton-based mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Turnbull, whose husband committed suicide in 2015. In the wake of that loss, Turnbull sought to create a new platform to help raise awareness about suicide, through the medium of music.

The name Mysterious Barricades, incidentally, is taken from a famous, gorgeous harpsichord piece by François Couperin (you’ve heard it, trust me). It is fitting not just because Les baricades mistérieuses was Turnbull’s husband’s favourite piece, but because “mysterious barricades” seems to conjure up the kinds of obstacles faced by those in the grip of mental illness.

Since Mysterious Barricades was launched, about 3,800 people have attended its concerts and more than 11,000 have viewed the video stream. Each year’s event involves more than 300 performers.

The good cause is not the only attraction of Saturday’s concert. Some of the city’s best musicians will perform, and the program, running about an hour, will feature a wide range of music, including works by Brahms (his late Violin Sonata No. 3), Rebecca Clarke, Hermann Zilcher and Tielman Susato.

Pianist Kinza Tyrrell will launch the event by performing Couperin’s piece. Other classical performers will include the Lafayette String Quartet; the lieder duo comprising soprano Sharon Krebs and pianist Harald Krebs; the 10-piece University of Victoria Brass Ensemble, joined by trumpeter Merrie Klazek, an assistant professor in UVic’s School of Music; and violinist Jeanel Liang, a UVic undergraduate who is already an experienced performer.

There will be non-classical repertoire, too. Fifth Street, an a cappella vocal quintet whose members met as UVic music students, will perform numbers including an Elvis Presley hit; tenor Ken Lavigne will sing Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; and jazz pianist and vocalist Louise Rose will bring the proceedings to a close.

The concert was organized and will be hosted by tenor Benjamin Butterfield, an associate professor at UVic, head of the School of Music’s voice department and (with Tyrrell) director of UVic’s Voice Ensemble.

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