Conductor sees real role as challenging singers to soar

IN CONCERT

The Victoria Philharmonic Choir: J.S. Bach's Mass in b Minor

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When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: First Metropolitan Church

Tickets: $30 regular, $15 students, free for children under 12. Available from Munro's, Ivy's, Cadboro Bay and Tanners bookstores, La Tavola Kitchenware and Long & McQuade.

For conductor Peter Butterfield, great art is at once static and moving.

"It's a changing thing, it's like dunes in a desert," he said. "I think by definition, it's a journey every time."

That's what gives some classical works - like Bach's 18th-century Mass in b Minor - their staying power.

Overnight, different elements of the piece, which he'll conduct Saturday as director of the Victoria Philharmonic Choir (VPC), seem to shift. A section that seemed extraordinary one night may seem mundane the next. But something in another section might reveal itself in a flash of clarity for the first time.

Butterfield, who estimates he has performed the Mass 12 to 15 times as both a conductor and a tenor, says it has the unusual quality of giving him something different every time he hears it.

Whether listeners have faith or not, there's also something spiritual about musical masterpieces.

"When you achieve oneness with a composer - or a few bars are utter perfection in an artistic creation - it's possible everything disappears. Everything. The individual, the conductor, the music itself," he said. "It may disappear in just a flash of perfection. And that may be preparation for something we're all going to do anyway, which is disappear in one way or another."

Butterfield took the helm of the VPC in 2009, taking over from founding director Simon Capet. He also teaches music at St. Michaels University School, as well as travelling to Vancouver once a week to lead another choral group, VancouverVoices, who will join the VPC in Saturday's presentation.

There are a handful of families that you simply can't ignore in the Victoria arts community, like the theatrical Richmonds or the multidisciplinary Stubel sisters. The Butterfields are one of them, having helped shape the local music landscape.

From a young age, Sybil and James Butterfield enrolled their five children in music lessons and bribed them with ice cream to participate in the Greater Victoria Performing Arts Festival.

Today, Benjamin is an accomplished tenor, Chris an avant-garde composer and while Philip left the classical world, he's still making music in Toronto.

Their late sister Joy played the flute.

"Music was always part of our house for sure," Butterfield said. "Records were always on at meal times."

Peter, the third son, spent a good chunk of his life as a tenor, too. His passion for early music blossomed in Montreal, where he made his debut with the Montreal Symphony and also sang with the Tudor Singers, a professional group. He spent several years performing internationally, but began conducting around 1995, while living in England.

"I always felt like I was a conductor," he said. "I just felt like I had more to offer as a conductor than I do as a singer. As a singer, you're a bit limited.

You just sing your part and sit down. And if you have something to say you can't say it. You can't say, 'Well why are you singing so out of tune?' to the soprano. And you can't just wonder why the bass sings so loudly all the time."

He occasionally still sings. When tenor Ben Heppner became ill in the middle of performing Elgar's Dream of Gerontius with the Vancouver Symphony five years ago, Butterfield left his seat from the audience to fill in - even though he hadn't sung the part in 20 years.

But decades after switching to conducting, he sees his real role as teacher.

"I realized a bit of perfectionist talk and a bit of challenging people - especially amateur people - to do better than they ever really dreamt of is a very satisfying thing," he said.

Though he tires of talking about his musical family, it's difficult not to, when Butterfield has lined up some of his nearest and dearest as soloists.

Soprano Anne Grimm is joined by Butterfield's brother Benjamin, his wife and mezzo-soprano Sarah Fryer, as well as bass-baritone Nathaniel Watson, who is his son's godfather.

A 23-member orchestra will accompany the VPC and VancouverVoices, including members of the Victoria Symphony - some of whom are experts in the Baroque style and will use period-appropriate instruments, like shorter violin bows.

The concert is dedicated to founding member Louise Lemire-Elmore, who died last week when she lost control of her car on a steep driveway and it slipped into the ocean.

asmart@timescolonist.com

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