Early Music Vancouver's Festive Cantatas celebrates Bach at his most complex, virtuosic, and joyful
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Suzie LeBlanc doesn’t remember precisely how many of Early Music Vancouver’s annual Festive Cantatas concerts she has participated in as a performer over the years. She tells the Straight that it’s somewhere in the neighbourhood of six or eight, but that’s just a guess. She is deeply involved in the 2022 edition as well, but the lauded soprano won’t be appearing on-stage.
In January of 2021, LeBlanc assumed the role of EMV’s artistic and executive director. It’s a job that keeps her so busy that, although she hasn’t retired from performance, LeBlanc has less time for singing. She admits, however, that she still very much possesses the mindset of an active performer.
“When we’re just about to start the rehearsal period, I feel like I should be practicing, but I don’t have to, so that’s a little bit odd,” LeBlanc says. “It’s strange, but at the same time I’m also kind of enjoying being on the other side and being able to bring in the soloists that I feel like hearing. There’s good things in both.”
For this year’s edition of the Festive Cantatas, those soloists include sopranos Hélène Brunet and Arwen Myers, alto Krisztina Szabó, tenor Jacques-Olivier Chartier, and bass Sumner Thompson. Joining the Pacific Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Alexander Weimann, they will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat and Cantata BWV 110.
The latter, LeBlance notes, was Weimann’s selection, and it requires some heavy lifting on the part of the orchestra. “It’s not done as often as some of the other Christmas pieces, perhaps just because it has three trumpets and three oboes, which is a big wind section,” she says. “And we have to import all those winds; we don’t actually have those baroque winds in Vancouver. So I think these cantatas are done less often just because of budgetary reasons. It’s just a fantastic cantata, and a great pairing, of course, because the Magnificat uses the same three trumpets and three oboes, so it makes perfect sense to do them together.”
The Magnificat is a traditional component of the liturgical services of the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and the Anglican Communion. Derived from the Gospel of Luke, its text tells of the pregnant Virgin Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John the Baptist.
Bach composed his version in 1723 after taking the post of director of the boys’ choir at the St. Thomas church in Leipzig. It was his first major liturgical composition on a Latin text (as opposed to a German one), and it was a departure in other ways as well.
“The Magnificat is a slightly different kind of cantata,” LeBlanc says. “It still sort of is a cantata, but doesn’t really feel like one. What’s unique about it is that each movement is very short compared to other cantata movements. They’re just these beautiful miniature artworks that kind of make a whole. It might be like eating tapas instead of a big meal, you know?”
Indeed, while it is comparable in length to the average cantata, Bach’s Magnificat has twice as many movements. The choral writing is in five parts, which, as Bach scholar Richard D. P. Jones has pointed out, is “outside the normal routine of Bach’s sacred vocal works”.
In LeBlanc’s view, the appeal of the Magnificat lies in the emotional and dynamic journey that Bach creates for the listener. “It’s just incredible how it goes from the sweetest and most intimate moments to this unabashed joy that really makes you want to dance while you’re listening to it,” she says. “It’s the expression of laughter in music, which he does so well.”
This, LeBlanc posits, is one reason why Bach’s music retains its impact on audiences three centuries after it was first performed—that and what she calls the composer’s innate humaneness.
“I feel like Bach was such a lover of life,” she says. “Not that we really know what he was like personally, but in his music there is an incredible humanity. His music has vulnerability and tenderness, and this joy that I was just talking about. I don’t know that much music that can embrace all of what we are in such a perfect way. It’s like the perfect blend of all the parts of our hearts that are tender and happy, and all these different things that we feel in any given day or week, especially around the Christmas season.
“He manages to present it in such a beautiful way that it’s really hard not to be touched,” LeBlanc concludes. “It’s really hard not to feel changed by it, to be in touch with your own emotions while you’re listening to it. It’s highly complex and incredibly virtuosic and all this stuff, and it’s also at the same time very, very basically human.”
Early Music Vancouver presents Festive Cantatas at the Kay Meek Arts Centre on Saturday (December 17) at 7:30 p.m. and at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday (December 18) at 3 p.m.