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Victoria Symphony sails into Sea Songs and Shanties this weekend

Montreal-based early-music collective La Nef is returning to Victoria for a pair of pops concerts at the Royal Theatre this weekend, backed by the Victoria Symphony.
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Montreal group La Nef will join the Victoria Symphony for two Celtic-themed performances this weekend. PIERRE-ÉTIENNE BERGERON

VICTORIA SYMPHONY PRESENTS: LA NEF — SEA SONGS AND SHANTIES

Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
When: Saturday, March 23, 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 24, 2:30 p.m.
Tickets: $29-$108 from the Royal McPherson box office (250-386-6121) or rmts.bc.ca

The Victoria Symphony first collaborated with Montreal-based early music collective La Nef in the summer of 2022, for an outdoor concert at the tail end of the pandemic.

The collaboration on the legislature lawn was part of the 10-day Splash Around Town music festival, which was created as a substitute for the newly-departed and much-beloved Symphony Splash at the time. While Victoria Symphony supporters were still reeling from the void created by the outgoing annual event, the feel-good concert with La Nef — featuring songs and “shanties” written by and for sailors working at sea — certainly lifted some spirits.

“It was a lot of fun,” said conductor Giuseppe (Joey) Pietraroia. “The chorus really got into it and everybody enjoyed the music. They are really fun tunes.”

The performance was so well-received, in fact, La Nef is returning to Victoria for a pair of pops concerts at the Royal Theatre this weekend, backed by the Victoria Symphony.

The Sea Songs and Shanties program features primarily new arrangements for orchestra written by Seán Dagher, the co-artistic director of La Nef, who sings and plays cittern in the group (a cittern is a guitar-like string instrument from the Renaissance period).

Dagher and his bandmates, Kate Bevan-Baker (violin, voice), David Gossage (flute, voice), Bill Gossage (double bass, voice), and singers Nils Brown, Michiel Schrey, Clayton Kennedy, will be joined for the upcoming Sea Songs and Shanties set by the Victoria Symphony and members of the Pacific Opera Chorus.

The program will lean on traditional Celtic folk music from the public domain, which has played a key role in classical music for centuries, according to Pietraroia. The audience won’t be short on authentic material with which to tap their feet, he added.

“You can kind of get that feeling of folk music with the orchestral colour, because the strings can play a lot of the fiddle stuff. There is a lot of repertoire with Irish and Celtic background, and other repertoire you can draw from in terms of adding colour.”

It’s not surprising the event did so well in 2022. Music from England, Ireland, Scotland and other areas has taken off in recent years, thanks to social media, which rekindled interest in a handful of songs from the public domain — specifically The Wellerman, a New Zealand whaling song from the early 20th Century.

Scottish singer Nathan Evans rode a version of the tune to the top of the TikTok charts in 2021, sparking a resurgence in sea shanties and the like (the 1976 folk song, Barrett’s Privateers, by late Canadian singer Stan Rogers, was also brought back to life on social media.)

The momentum of The Wellerman has likely played a part in strong advance sales heading into the pair of weekend events.

“We’re expecting our regular audience, but also some new people who are into Celtic music. They will probably enjoy this, even if they have not been to a symphony concert before.”

Pietraroia is not in entirely foreign territory; he also led a Victoria Symphony concert with Cape Breton combo The Barra MacNeils years ago.

“But this is even more folky and earthy,” he said, with a laugh.

mdevlin@timescolonist.com