Music lovers in the 21st century don’t normally connect Scottish fiddling and jigs with great baroque composers like Johann Sebastian Bach or Antonio Vivaldi.
It’s a heretical thought for those who associate classical music with grand concert halls and tuxedo-wearing conductors.
But in fact, some fashionable baroque composers of the 17th and 18th centuries did rub shoulders with these fiddlers from Scotland. And this left a lasting influence on baroque, a complex style of music that includes harmonic language and requires many more instruments than Scottish folk songs.
Suzie LeBlanc, a highly regarded soprano and artistic and executive director of Early Music Vancouver, tells the Straight by phone that Scottish fiddle music and jigs actually inspired several Italian baroque composers including Francesco Geminiani.
In addition, these fiddlers had an impact on Germany’s Georg Philipp Telemann and France’s George Muffat, who was of Scottish descent on his father’s side.
“They were just immersed in it,” LeBlanc says. “So the ties, are very, very close. It’s a lot of fun to look at baroque music through that lens.”
That’s precisely what Early Music Vancouver will do at this year’s Vancouver Bach Festival, which runs from July 26 to August 6. By examining Scottish baroque and other traditions, this year’s festival is breaking new ground.
It’s also an acknowledgement that the “Old Wig”, as Bach was called, employed musicians who often played in taverns.
“It’s historically really sound to talk about it,” LeBlanc says. “It can change the way people approach a composer like Bach, for example.
“Most of the music by Bach is dances,” she continues. “And where did these dances originate from? They’re in traditional music.”
Early Music Vancouver has two artists in residence who will reinforce this year’s theme at several concerts during the Vancouver Bach Festival
One of them, Scottish keyboardist and University of Glasgow senior lecturer David McGuinness, is a scholar of Scottish musical traditions.
The other artist in residence, baroque violinist and Cape Breton fiddler David Greenberg, is ideally suited to interpret the ties between Scotland and the baroque music that first emerged in Italy and spread across Europe. In the 1990s, he wove together Scottish, Cape Breton, and baroque music in three recordings with Puirt A Baroque.
LeBlanc says that the two Davids have not played together since the pandemic began. According to her, they’re really looking forward to the festival’s opening night’s concert, Ebb and Flow, at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on July 27.
“They are musicians who are versed in what we call HIP—historically informed practice—in baroque music,” LeBlanc says.
They will join the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, led by Alexander Weimann, in a celebration of water. Together, they’ll perform George Frideric Handel’s Water Music, Telemann’s Hamburger Ebb’ und Fluth, and Alasdair MacLean’s The Silken Water is Weaving and Weaving.
LeBlanc says that this show will also feature Vancouver poet laureate Fiona T. Lam offering verses that will be interspersed with Greenberg’s improvisations.
“It’s all about the importance of water for human beings…something we treasure and take care of on our planet,” LeBlanc says. “There are lots of beautiful messages there.”
This year, Early Music Vancouver has also invited soprano Ellen Torrie and violinist Marie Nadeau-Tremblay to be the first members of its emerging-artists program. On August 3, they will perform at Pyatt Hall in the VSO School of Music with theorbist Sylvain Bergeron in a show called The Next Generation: Baroque Innovations.
LeBlanc, who taught at McGill University until the end of the 2020-21 academic year, has been impressed by how many young singers are also mastering popular instruments from the early-music period, such as the lute and the harp.
“Ellen Torrie has learned to play the baroque guitar and will self-accompany herself,” LeBlanc adds.
Another young musical star, B.C. violinist and Juilliard School grad Chloe Kim, will perform with Tremblay and last year’s Early Vancouver Music artist in residence, baritone Jonathon Adams, in a show called Out of the Deep on August 4 at Christ Church Cathedral. They’ll be joined by Margaret Little on viola da gamba, Lucas Harris on theorbo, and Avi Stein on keyboard.
Kim will return to Christ Church Cathedral on the following night for Bach: Four Sonatas and a Concerto, with Stein again on keyboard and Christina Mahler on cello.
LeBlanc is also looking forward to several other concerts, including Ensemble Arkora’s exploration of links between new Canadian works and ancient pieces by Hildegard von Bingen at Christ Church Cathedral on July 28. The group will be joined by Lan Tung on erhu.
One the world’s great horn players, Pierre-Antoine Tremblay, who will join Weimann in a concert called The Last Rose of Summer at Christ Church Cathedral on July 29.
Another festival highlight will be Contrasto Armonico’s concert, entitled Les Nations, at Christ Church Cathedral on July 29. LeBlanc describes the group’s founder, Palermo-born harpsichordist and organist Marco Vitale, as “a shaker and a mover” in baroque music. He became music director of Denman Baroque in 2017.
Vitale is also one of four harpsichordists—along with Weimann, McGuinness, and Christina Hutten—who will be at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on August 5 with Pacific Baroque Orchestra for Bach’s revered Concerto for four harpsichords in A minor. It was a reworking of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins and Strings. Greenberg and Chloe Myers will be on violin.
This concert will feature four early French harpsichords of the same make created by West Vancouver’s Craig Tomlinson. LeBlanc points out that there are only four of these instruments in Vancouver and they’ll be on-stage together.
“Many people have performed the harpsichord concerto for four harpsichords by Bach,” the Early Music Vancouver artistic and executive director acknowledges. “But I’m not sure they’ve done it on identical instruments. So it’s going to be really fun. You’ll hear the character of each particular one within a family.”
Fans of LeBlanc’s work as a soprano also won’t be disappointed. She, along with Tremblay, Bergeron, and recorder player Vincent Lauzer will mix Acadian folk songs with airs de cour from the French court of Louis XIV in an August 2 concert at Christ Church Cathedral.
LeBlanc says that she and the musicians were already going to perform this concert at another festival in July.
“They said ‘Can we do this in Vancouver?’ I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it!’ ”