Early music is providing some of the most wide-ranging and reliable musical pleasures in town these days, in part because the current season of the Early Music Society of the Islands has been particularly rich.
Those who enjoyed the French Baroque fare of the Pacific Baroque Festival in February are urged to attend EMSI's next concert, a program of 17th-and early 18th-century French vocal and instrumental chamber music, featuring the ensemble La RÃªveuse (Saturday, 8 p.m., Alix Goolden Hall; $20-$27, student rush $10; earlymusicsocietyoftheislands.ca) .
La RÃªveuse, based in France and specializing in Baroque music of various traditions, comprises five instrumentalists, three of whom - theorbo (a long-necked lute), viola da gamba, and harpsichord - are participating on its current North American tour.
On Saturday, they will be joined by tenor Jeffrey Thompson (a proverbial American in Paris) in a program focused on the French court air, an important genre of secular song that emerged in the late 1500s and continued to flourish through the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715).
Performed as partsongs or solo songs and accompanied by a lute or basso continuo, court airs were produced by some of the finest composers in France expressly to entertain the king and his circle. They were comparatively simple and light, but also intimate and tenderly expressive (they were usually poignant love songs).
Reflecting quintessentially French musical values - grace, elegance, refinement, discretion, good taste - the court air became a model for much French Baroque music, and its influence spread even beyond France.
The title of Saturday's concert, Rest, Shade, Silence, is taken from an air by Michel Lambert, who was a court composer to Louis XIV for 35 years and from whom more than 300 airs survive.
The program will include airs by Lambert and two of his contemporaries, Joseph de la Barre and Marc-Antoine Charpentier, plus instrumental pieces by Françis Couperin, Robert de VisÃ©e and the gamba virtuoso Marin Marais, whose La RÃªveuse (The Dreamer) presumably inspired the visiting ensemble's name.
Last April, the Victoria Baroque Players, the first professional period-instrument ensemble founded on local talent, made an impressive debut with a program titled Bach on Palm Sunday, which will apparently be an annual tradition: This Sunday, as part of a 2011-12 season devoted almost exclusively to Bach, the ensemble will mark its first anniversary with another Palm Sunday program of his sacred vocal music (7: 30 p.m., Church of St. John the Divine; $20/$5; victoria-baroque.com).
As usual, the instrumentalists will be joined by vocal soloists as well as the 20-or-so members of the St. John's Chamber Singers.
(The choir's director, organist David Stratkauskas, and the founder of the Victoria Baroque Players, flutist Soile Stratkauskas, are husband and wife, and moved here from London in 2010.)
Three works make up Sunday's program: Tilge, HÃ¶chster, meine SÃ¼nden, Bach's arrangement of Pergolesi's popular Stabat mater, with a German text drawn from Psalm 51; the lively motet Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, a setting of Psalm 117; and HimmelskÃ¶nig, sei willkommen, BWV 182, a Palm Sunday cantata Bach performed in 1714 in Weimar, where he was a court organist and chamber musician. (By coincidence, the Pergolesi arrangement was performed here in January in an EMSI concert, while the motet was performed earlier this month by the CapriCCio Vocal Ensemble.)
The biggest musical offering of Holy Week will be Handel's Messiah, to be given on Good Friday at Christ Church Cathedral (April 6, 7: 30 p.m.; $20).
The performance, conducted by Michael Gormley, will feature Christ Church's Cathedral Choir and St. Christopher Singers, an orchestra of 16 (drawn largely from the Victoria Symphony), and, as soloists, this year's Cathedral Choral Scholars - four talented, promising voice students from the university and the conservatory.
Gormley calls this a "rogue Messiah," since it is being offered outside the Christmas season, though in fact Handel gave the première of Messiah in April 1742, and his many subsequent performances of it were invariably around Easter.
In deference to the season, however, Gormley has cut Part 1, which deals with Christ's birth, and will perform only Parts 2 and 3, which begin with the Passion story. And yes, that means the Hallelujah Chorus has been left intact - only a madman would risk audience revolt by cutting that.