It’s not often that a early music concert features an actor portraying a character from the 17th century, the era of the Baroque. Olivier Henchiri, the artistic director of the Ottawa Baroque Consort explains to Artsfile’s Peter Robb more about the group’s concert on Saturday March 25 at 7:30p.m. at Glebe St. James United Church, 625 Lyon St. S. For more information about the show and tickets please see ottawabaroque.ca.
Q. Who came up with the idea for building a performance around the father of microbiology?
A. This is actually our fifth year doing a concert of this type. I’ve always liked to give audiences some context around the music we play, often with anecdotes or stories from the period. Then, one year, we decided to tell a story from the point of view of an actual figure from the Baroque era. My wife, Jacinthe Gauthier-Hudon, and I researched and wrote the story, and we set the stage for an actor to perform it alongside the orchestra. In the past, we focused on characters who have a strong connection to the musical realm, like a composer, a luthier or a king. Jacinthe, thanks to her nursing background, knew of Van Leeuwenhoek for his contributions to the field of microbiology. So she suggested that we try something new this year by delving into the world of science. And, as it turns out, it’s a really inspiring story. This show is an exciting step too, because it opens up a vast array of interesting new characters that we could research for future performances.
Q. Can you tell me some more about Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.
A. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was a Dutch businessman-turned-scientist, born in 1632. His father was a basket maker and merchant, so naturally, as a teenager he went off to apprentice under another tradesperson — a cloth merchant. It was here that he saw his first (very primitive) magnifying lens and he was fascinated.
He eventually became a draper, but the concept of the magnifying lens was embedded in his mind. After much research and experimentation, Van Leeuwenhoek developed his own, much improved version of the microscope and began to use it to observe the world around him. He is credited with the discovery of single-celled organisms. When he first submitted this discovery to the Royal Society of London, it was met with skepticism. It was only after he persisted and had a number of people witness his experiments in person that his reputation was salvaged. After this, Van Leeuwenhoek was appointed as a Fellow to the Society.
Q. Can you give me some more detail about the program of Dutch Baroque music. And can you explain some of the context in which this music was originally created.
A. The program will feature a concerto grosso by Willem de Fesch, overtures by Pieter Hellendaal, and select movements from Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer’s Concerti Armonici. We have a habit of playing lesser-known composers at the Ottawa Baroque Consort. But don’t let that fool you, the music is absolutely stunning. You won’t be missing Bach or Vivaldi one bit at this concert. De Fesch and Hellendaal are virtually unknown today, but were both famous virtuosos in their day. They both met and performed with Handel. As for Van Wassenaer, he was a Dutch nobleman with a remarkable talent for composing. His Concerti Armonici were misattributed to the more famous (and still more famous today) Italian composer Pergolesi until 1980. All three composers were influenced by the expressive and flamboyant style of the Italians. We will also play a dramatic piece for Viola da Gamba by Dutch composer Johannes Schenck, that I have arranged for cellos and orchestra.
Q. When did Pierre Brault get involved?
A. We invited Pierre three years ago to take on the role of Christopher Newport, a 17th-century sailor and the founder of the first English colony in America. It was such a fantastic experience that we’ve invited him back to bring different characters to life every year since.
These shows are not your typical classical concert. They’re all about being immersed in a story, and the music program is designed to complement the action or emphasize the emotions of the character. Pierre is an accomplished actor and a veteran stand-up comic, so he plays off the audience superbly and always manages to add a touch of humour and spontaneity to the performance.
Q. Tell me more about the Baroque Consort. How old, who is involved? How many shows each year?
A. The Ottawa Baroque Consort was formed in 2005, originally as a chamber ensemble, to fill a gap that existed in the Ottawa classical music scene. Montreal and Toronto had established Baroque orchestras and large ensembles, but Ottawa had a very limited early music community at the time. By 2012, more and more Ottawa musicians had acquired period instruments and expressed interest in performing early music, so I expanded the ensemble to a Baroque orchestra. Everyone performs on period instruments that are either originals or faithful copies of instruments from the Baroque era, and with gut strings and Baroque bows. The orchestra’s core members are professional string players in the NCR, and local harpsichordist and early music specialist Marie Bouchard. We often complement the orchestra with additional strings, winds, or soloists from Montreal and Toronto.
We produce a yearly series of three or four concerts, and we often collaborate with local choirs and ensembles who wish to perform early music with period instruments.