From the start, imaginative programming has been a strength of Pacific MusicWorks. Stephen Stubbs launched this Seattle-based production company in 2009 to explore the remarkably varied world of early vocal music — particularly baroque opera and oratorio — in a way that’s engaging for contemporary audiences.
This Saturday’s season-opening concert (Oct. 22) brings a characteristically enticing assortment of styles and even philosophies of music up for consideration in a program inspired by "The Song of Songs." It’s a part of the Bible that novelist A.S. Byatt describes as “a lyrical drama” in which “speakers and episodes run into each other as in a dream or a vision.” PMW has titled their program Canticum Canticorum: Ecstatic Surrender.
Matthew White, a countertenor soloist who also serves as PMW’s executive director, collaborated with Stubbs to choose the selections. “Mostly we perform early music, but not exclusively,” explains White. “Our mission is to provide a contemporary voice for early music.” Criss-crossing through the centuries provides one way of encouraging that dialogue. Last year, for example, PMW paired Monteverdi with avant-garde composer Heiner Goebbels. Most of the programming for this Saturday’s concert comes from the 16th and 17th centuries (reaching as far back as Lassus), but some 20th-century approaches will also be sprinkled in (William Walton and Healey Willan).
Stubbs, whose musical education was at the University of Washington, is an internationally recognized figure in the early-music scene as a lutenist, conductor, and director. He combines the practical drive of an impresario with the scholar’s passion for discovery. “Stephen spends an enormous amount of time combing through manuscripts in libraries throughout Europe,” says White, remarking on his gift for finding intriguing connections. “And then in rehearsal we spend hours slaving over how to evoke the text meaningfully. In the Purcell anthem we’re doing, for example, there’s a chromatic moment in the line that wonderfully suggests the sensual fragrance of the fig tree and the ‘vines with tender grapes.’ This is part of the delight of singing this music. In fact, we’ve decided this season to use supertitles for all of our concerts so the audience can follow these nuances more easily.”
Saturday also marks PMW’s inaugural concert in the historic former First United Methodist Church on Fifth Avenue downtown, which was saved from the wrecking ball by developer Kevin Daniels and has been preserved for occasional musical uses as Daniels Recital Hall. Although the upcoming January program devoted to oratorio music of Carissimi will be performed at St. James Cathedral, White points out that Daniels Hall is PMW’s new permanent home and will be adding a stage next summer. Years ago, the church was home to Early Music Guild concerts, since moved to Town Hall.
“Daniels Hall is a very flexible space which can be used for a more intimate audience but can also be filled with up to 1,300 people. It has a live, warm acoustic, with a bit of bloom that helps us play with the sound a little and fits the kind of music we perform very well.” In fact, another aspect of the Canticum Canticorum program involves the textural blend of voices and instruments in the sequence of pieces by Schutz, Monteverdi, Buxtehude, and others. They will feature a range of instrumental palettes in the accompaniments, from larger ensemble to continuo alone, with some purely instrumental interludes as well, such as a chaconne by J.C. Bach.
As for Stubbs the impresario, PMW has been aiming to link up the remarkable wealth of locally based talent specializing in early music with renowned visiting musicians. Saturday’s program is a typical example, with its mix of Seattle musicians and the Montreal-based vocal ensemble Les Voix Baroques. White, who serves as managing director of the latter as well, points out that PMW plans to pursue more collaborations with Canadian ensembles in future seasons.
“We need to think of how Seattle and its lively early-music scene can be more connected with musicians from Vancouver, Victoria, Portland, too. These programs are extremely expensive to put together, so we’re trying to think in terms of the larger Pacific Northwest community. I think that’s how you get a critical mass of people, as you have in Montreal and Boston, who are then able to explore and put on bigger, more exciting things.”
If you go: PMW’s concert is at 8 pm on Saturday, October 22, at Daniels Hall,, 811 Fifth Avenue, corner of Marion, Seattle, 206-913-2073. Tickets online at Brownpapertickets.com, $20-35.