Chamberfest: Pacific Baroque Orchestra explores Russian connection

The influence of Baroque music was present across Europe in the 18th century. The French had their version; the English too. In Germany, Johann Sebastian Bach was leading the way from the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.

But the Baroque also travelled east toward to the glittering court of the Romanovs.

Indeed Bach himself had cast his eye on heading to St. Petersburg. In 1726, according to notes prepared for Chamberfest by Christina Hutten, he wrote to a friend seeking help in obtaining a position in the court.

The interactions between the German states and the courts in France and in other centres in Central and Western Europe is well known. But the relationships were equally strong between Russia and Germany, said Alexander Weinmann, the music director of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, which will perform in the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre on Oct. 25 as part of the Chamberfest concert series.

Karina Gauvin. Photo: Michael Slobodian

The concert will feature the soprano Karina Gauvin and contains a program that is packed full of period music written by Russian composers and western composers who were known to the Russian court.

This will be the first time back for the Pacific Baroque Orchestra with the Chamberfest since 2015 when the ensemble performed Montiverdi’s Vespers.

“The connections with Russia were so deep. We tend to forget that or to not keep that in mind, Weinmann said.

In those years, the music moved by horse and carriage and by letters, and it was introduced to new places.

Alexander Weinmann

“It is also surprising how swiftly it spreads and how accurate the information was conveyed.” There weren’t any fax machines or emails then.

The handwritten copies worked well too.

Organizations such as the PBO are always on the look out for different ways of presenting the music they love.

“The origin of this project started with a planned co-operation with Vancouver Opera.”

They had narrowed their activities to a festival in the spring, Weinmann said, and one year they were interested in a theme around the Russian White Nights Festival.

The idea came up to do some Russian repertoire with Karina and the PBO, he said.

“The first take we did had more even more emphasis on Russian composers than the program we are performing in Ottawa and will record” soon after.

The first lineup was lighter, and had been recorded by Cecilia Bartoli, and Gauvin suggested reworking it to add some gravitas.

“We decided we wanted to do something different really.” They added some works by Christoph Willibald Gluck, whose music was loved at the Russian court. His music provided tons of tragedy.

The connection between the PBO and Gauvin has been regularly made over the years, he said. They have recorded a couple of albums together, including the JUNO-winning recording of Handel’s Orlando, and have toured together. In fact, Weinmann and Gauvin have known each other pretty much since he landed in Canada from Munich, German, his hometown, for about 20 years now.

Weinmann came into contact with Canadian Baroque music practice working with Tafelmusik in Germany and with the soprano Suzie LeBlanc on a recording of Handel’s Gloria that was discovered 20 years ago. She brought him to conduct the recording. But it was love that brought him here.

While in Canada to do this he met a violinist. They carried on a cross-Atlantic relationship and finally tied the knot.

In Canada, he has found a thriving period music scene. “There is a lot to be proud of,” he says, noting that for a nation of its population size, “Canada comes up with an enormous amount of fantastic singers. And it’s a friendly place for the arts,” This, he says, despite the fact that the public school system doesn’t do much for the arts in general.

In Weinmann’s case, his interest in Baroque music began with the organ.

“I started as a pianist and, quite early at age 11, I started playing the organ. For a long time that was my instrument.

“The organ was a very important instrument through the 18th century. And every composer would write for the instrument.”

Then he got interested in the harpsichord and then into vocal music. From his early 20s he specialized in Baroque music. He does have other passions, though, including jazz, and certain pop musicians including Sting, who he thinks is amazing.

“I think if you love music, you love (all kinds of) music.”

The program in Ottawa is “a little bit of a kaleidoscope that we are presenting.”

There is a lot of very light, fun music. There is also a lot of depth.

“As a dramatic event the strongest music will be at the end of the program” with a number of selections from Gluck’s Armide.

“Karina and I spent a lot of time on micro-tuning the program. It is designed to be something that keeps you there from the first piece to the last. It’s not very much music; it’s 70 minutes with encore 75 minutes.”

The idea, he said, was to represent the period as it would have been heard in Russia.

Many of the people in the audience will not have heard this music before. Even Weinmann hadn’t heard of some of the composers, including the Russians Bortniansky and Berezovsky, when he began working on this program a few years ago.

“One of the miraculous things in our profession is that I find is not only new composers provide new music, there is so much we don’t know,” even a man who has made a career of playing Baroque music.

Chamberfest presents Pacific Baroque Orchestra with Karina Gauvin
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
Where: Oct. 25 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.