The Sackville Festival of Early Music (SFEM) is back and better than ever! In its 19th year, the festival repeatedly proves to be a central figure in the Sackville music community. This year’s programming provided audiences with ample opportunity to explore a variety of early music in a cross-cultural, multi-contextual experience. Music associate professor Dr. Linda Pearse is the festival’s artistic director. I spoke with her before the first performance in regard to what was in store for this year: “This year’s festival holds remarkable contrasts. We have, on one hand, this exquisite Bach program on Friday, and, on Saturday, we are honouring the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation with a performance of Indigenous musics from different locations in the world, and then we come back, on Sunday, to an early 17-century program with marvellous instruments, such as the new organ.” This was the first year I was able to attend every single performance, and was completely transported to a different musical world on each night of the festival.
This year’s iteration, however, has a special connection to many Mt. A students, including myself. During the winter 2023 term, students in MUSC-1221: Music, Culture, and Context, underwent a major project connected to this year’s festival. Under the direction of Dr. Pearse, we travelled to Montreal where we collected data and created audio documentaries. From this year’s program, we were honoured to meet Kiya Tabassian— the artistic director of Ensemble Constantinople, and Eric Milnes and Mélisande Corriveau— the artistic directors of L’Harmonie des Saisons. After spending so much time with the music performed, and meeting some of the musicians in person last March, there is no doubt that there was invigorating excitement surrounding this year’s festival offerings. I spoke to Skylar Côté, a second-year Bachelor of Music student and classmate in MUSC-1221, about her experiences with her project and her anticipation for the festival. In particular, she shared a certain elation to seeing L’Harmonie des Saisons, especially after meeting the artistic directors. “I’m definitely excited to see the pieces we discussed in class. […] I got to talk to Eric and Mélisande about their project, and I’m also interested to see the mixture of music that Constantinople is bringing. It is all these different cultures coming together and performing this beautiful piece as an ensemble.” Like Pearse, Côté also noted the different types of music audiences would be exposed to: “They’re not styles of music you would think would go together, but they’re making it sound so lovely, it’s like an allegory for our world and how we’re now coming together.” Coming together truly was an underlying theme of this year’s festival, as many indicated this finally was a return to the level of programming and engagement SFEM had encompassed before the pandemic.
The festival began on October 27, with a Colloquium Musicum unveiling the new “klop” organ in Brunton Auditorium. The organ was played in a selection of pieces performed by members from the world-renowned ensemble L’Harmonie des Saisons. The musicians not only provided a taste of some of their selections for their concert on October 1, but were open in explaining some historical contexts behind the pieces, shared secrets of their techniques and instruments, and dodged questions from the students in the audience. I was immediately impressed with how down-to-earth they all were. Their connection to not only the music, but to each other was extremely palpable, and it was evident that they enjoyed playing the music just as much as we enjoyed listening to it.
The festival continued on Friday, September 29 when L’Harmonie des Saisons presented a triumphant collection of Bach concertos. It was so incredible to see this Juno-Award-winning ensemble play one of their albums in full. The level of interaction between the musicians, and with the audience, was an aspect of the performance I was in awe of. During the intermission, I was almost giddy with excitement for the next set of pieces. I had never thought of Bach as a composer whose music could be so inspiring and make me sit on the edge of my seat.
On Saturday, September 30, the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation was honoured with Breathings from Ensemble Constantinople. The work was created and developed by both Kiya Tabassian and Mi’kmaq singer-songwriter Darlene Gijuminag. The ensemble also featured instruments from indigenous peoples around the world, and throat singing from renowned Inuit singer Celina Kalluk. I genuinely could not think of a better way to spend that day. Hearing and seeing indigenous perspectives through music was a poignant way to mark the occasion, and the large audience was incredibly receptive and warm to what we were hearing.
The festival concluded with L’Harmonie des Saisons returning to perform Italian instrumental selections from the 16th and 17th centuries. Each of these pieces was technically stunning and pleasant to hear. It was an amazing way to conclude the festival that was both enjoyable and historic, as many of the pieces included were from underlooked names in history, including a work from a female composer, and the first Jewish composer to ever be published.
It was completely remarkable to me that not only were these performers presenting such fine work, but it was here in Sackville and very accessible! All music department concerts, including SFEM, are free for all students. Such exposure to the arts at this level definitely affirmed how much I love being a student at Mt. A. I can safely say that over the past weekend, these performances were some of the best I have ever seen. With how remarkable this year has been, I can only imagine what next year—the festival’s 20th anniversary—has in store.