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Pieta plays with spirit

The Vancouver Sun

by Lloyd Dykk

Patterned on a famous Venetian music school of more than three centuries ago, the 12 female musicians of La Pieta played at the Chan Centre on the weekend as part of a Western Canadian tour meant to broaden their base outside of Quebec.

In the Venice of Antonio Vivaldi, there were four charitable asylums and hospitals. One of them, the Ospedale della Pieta (a refuge for girls who were illegitimate, unwanted or forced into prostitution) grew to include a program of education and musical training which Vivaldi oversaw for 40 years. Enabling these girls to reclaim a self-respect almost beyond fantasy, he developed the Pieta into a music conservatory and produced young virtuosos whose musicianship became legendary not only in Venice but abroad.

La Pieta Chamber Ensemble, comprised mainly of young women, was formed by Quebec violinist Angele Dubeau in 1997. Each member wears a touch of red, no doubt in tribute to Vivaldi (who was known as “the red priest” for the colour of his beard) and for the original La Pieta, whose inmates wore red – the colour of charity.

Many of Vivaldi’s most famous works were written for these girls (Mozart was impressed enough to write a violin sonata for one of them) and they were adored by royalty, up to a point: when they played their faces had to be obscured by grilles.

The much more liberated musicians of the Canadian La Pieta use music partly to do good works. In each city of the tour, they ally themselves with a social cause, as they did on the day before the Chan’s public concert, performing for free to about 120 people at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. But more than good works, they do good music, as we heard at the Chan.


The program started with Vivaldi (naturally), included other baroque names such as Rameau and Tartini, and moved on into only the most melodious aspects of the 20th century, as if to avoid much more than a ripple of time-warp. “Baroque for Dummies?” one might have wondered, but the ensemble didn’t play routinely or cynically, and seemed to enjoy what they were doing. They listened to one another, played with style and produced almost consistently fine balances from an esprit de corps.

Dubeau, the first violin of the group and a well-known soloist who has produced many concerto recordings, didn’t hog the limelight as might have been expected (though it was still clear that she was in charge with her red shoes and red-alert beats). She shared many of her solo turns with other members of the orchestra, and made elegant work of Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” sonata, Bartok’s delicious Rumanian Folk Dances (a program highlight) and a gypsy csárdas by Vittorio Monti. Much of the music came via arrangement for string orchestra by the group’s harpsichordist/pianist Louise-Andree Baril. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t – certainly not her arrangement of the “Devil’s Trill” (Tartini’s alleged pact with the devil) which dampened the spirit of solo virtuosity with an ill-placed spirit of “democracy.” Much better, though, was her sexy arrangement of an Albeniz tango.

Harry Somers’ Little Suite for String Orchestra and Claude Champagne’s Village Dance were little more than nods to Canadian political correctness but Henri Vieuxtemps’ Souvenir d’Amerique an early Vivaldi Sinfonia and the Bartok dances were electric. My lasting impression of this capable orchestra is of the double-bassist, Annie Vanasse, a slight woman on a huge instrument not usually noticed in an orchestra. Without calling attention to herself on this dark, reticent equalizer, she commanded expression and scudding tonal balances from big lumber.

Mon Jan 31, 2000