Sweet 17th century: Olivier Henchiri and Ottawa Baroque Consort pursue their passion

The Ottawa Baroque Consort will perform at the National Gallery of Canada. Photo: Paul Couvrette

Olivier Henchiri graduated from the Gatineau Conservatory playing the modern cello.

That lasted for a bit, but soon enough he caught the Baroque bug. He was infected by the desire to play music of the time and in the manner of the 17th century.

It’s the kind of passion that has been sweeping across the western world for some time now. But Ottawa (and Gatineau) has not been a particular hotbed of this musical practice so for many years Henchiri studied on his own and attending workshops.

Early on in his pursuit of period performance, he was given a German Baroque cello dated circa 1725, by the Paul Hahn Fund two days before Christmas. It was a sign “that I was on the right track.” Henchiri still plays the instrument by the way.

It also signalled that it was time to get serious so with three colleagues he formed the Ottawa Baroque Consort in 2005. The original gang of four included Henchiri, Marie Bouchard on harpsichord, Paul Prefontaine and Laura Nerenberg (both on violin). Bouchard and Henchiri remain

Pierre Brault will play both Sir Isaac Newton and William Chaloner. Photo: Paul Couvrette Photography

“I decided to make it real and I have been producing concerts ever since. It originally started as a quartet but it has grown over the past several years. These days it’s usually 13 members.”

The interest in period music has grown slowly but over the years, the Consort’s musical ambition has grown too.

“We have performed some really big masterpieces in the past few years such as the Bach Passions, operas and oratorios.”

And in the past few years, each season has included a theatre piece.

This year on May 11 at Glebe St. James United Church they will perform Counterfeit!, the story of a 17th century English criminal who was actually tracked down by Sir Isaac Newton in his role as Master of the Mint and not as the mathematician and physicist.

William Chaloner is considered England’s greatest counterfeiter who fooled the Royal Mint, the Bank of England and the British Government.

In the past, the Consort has done plays on the scientist who invented the microscope, a ship captain who founded the first colony in America and a criminal who became a violin maker.

The spark for these elaborate productions came from Henchiri’s wife, Jacinthe Hudon, who told him she found his concerts boring.

“So we discussed about how to make a concert more exciting. Both of us were inspired by listening to storytelling and music combined. My son is mesmerized by Beethoven Lives Upstairs and we thought we could adapt this format to live concerts.” So they started writing scripts together. And with a new arrival in the family this past January, they are certainly keeping busy.

Henchiri said the plays certainly change the classical concert experience.

“I have friends who are really non-musical. It would not make it through 10 minutes of a classical concert and they show up every year to see it.

“We take a fascinating story, then make it funny with intrigue and action. We pick awesome characters from the Baroque period and tell the story with live music.”

The concept has evolved over the years.

For the past few, Ottawa actor Pierre Brault has been part of the performance. This year, he’s playing Chaloner and Newton in period costume.

These performances are one-offs.

“We have been approached by a group in Toronto to do it there,” but it’s difficult to organize this, so not yet, he said.

They are already thinking about next year and it’s going to be even bigger, including possible circus acts, he said.

Along with the show, the Consort organized two talks on coins and counterfeiting at the end of April.

The large productions are part of a season of concerts of Baroque music.

It is an incredibly rich art form, he said.

“The fact that it was essentially lost for two centuries means we are discovering much of it now. There are so many intricacies there. There is symbolism, word painting and accents that are specific to different times and places.”

It is also varied across cultures and countries, he said. The Baroque lasted a century and a half and it developed differently in different nations.

“Italian Baroque is full of exuberant energy. French Baroque is eloquent and articulated. The Germans produced structured music with lots of symbolism. Basically we are trying to bring audiences back in time so we can experience music played back in the day.”

They do enter the Classical period and play the music of Mozart and Haydn. There is a natural flow between the two eras, he said.

Henchiri believes people respond to the music because there “is some universal humanity in it even after a few hundred years. We are disconnected from that period and yet the music speaks to us.

“I think it speaks even more when you use the performance practice of the time.”

OttawaBaroque Consort presents Counterfeit!
Where: Glebe St. James United Church, 650 Lyon St. S.
When: May 11 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: ottawabaroque.ca

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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.