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“Oilblood” re-imagines Harper with Baroque vengeance

“I fear that if we don't recognize the violent results of our culture of consumption we risk spreading that violence from the soil and the water and the air to ourselves and our ability to live”.  

Last Saturday Vancouver’s Erato Ensemble, in a clever double entendre concert, invited us to re-imagine nine Baroque masterpieces first in their original form and then remixed as contemporary pieces with thoroughly modern messages. One re-imagining—“Oilblood”—caught my attention by sic’ing a mighty baroque vengeance upon Prime Minister Steven Harper and all who justify the rape of the natural world as “economic opportunity”.

Beware the Baroque

George Friedrich Handel’s original aria “Svegliatevi nel core” (Awaken in my heart) from his opera Julius Cesar is the original source of vengeance. In the aria, the character Sesto vows to avenge the death of his father, Pompey, whom the Egyptians assassinated in 48 BC to please their Roman overlords.

“Oilblood” recaptures the spirit of vengeance but this time composer Adam Hill puts it in service of Mother Nature and outrage is directed at the tar sands, the market economy, and Harper himself.

Harper-ing on

To understand the Baroque properly, you need to appreciate its sense of heightened drama, and that’s where Hill masters the Baroque source material superbly (almost to the point of satire). After the show Hill said, “In writing 'Oilblood', I really wanted to present a contemporary statement, not just a modern interpretation of an antiquated statement”.

With that in mind, Hill approached writer Kevin Spenst to create a new text for the aria. “Kevin made a very clever double use of the word "Harper" with images of strings and discord”, said Hill. Hill also mentioned that Spenst had been reading a series of sonnets written from the perspective of a young Surrey man fighting in the trenches of World War I.

Spenst, he said, had found parallels between the violence and anger in Handel's piece and the process of warfare, and then summed up saying, "'I fear that if we don't recognize the violent results of our culture of consumption we risk spreading that violence from the soil and the water and the air to ourselves and our ability to live'".  

Baroque vengeance

Modern outrage

“Awaken in my heart”


Awaken in my heart

Affix bayonets! Extraction!

The wrath of an offended soul

Over the top platoons go;

So I may wreak upon a traitor

And while in no man’s land,

My bitter vengeance!

No fear affright you!

The ghost of my father

Harper, your strings waylay us.

Hastens to my defense

You strum discord on nature.

Saying, “From you, my son Ferocity is expected”

You cry out: “Extract the guts of quarries with jawstock!”


Among the nine muses in Greek mythology, Erato is the muse of lyric poetry, so the number nine figured prominently. Here are nine other highlights of the evening:

  • Alvaro Rojas’ “In darkness let me dwell” scored for tenor (William George), and two electric guitars (Adrian Verdejo and Alvaro Rojas) matched “Oilblood” for drama.
    Where some of the modern pieces lost their way in the cavernous interior of St. Andrew’s Church, Rojas capitalized on its acoustics to create trance-like walls of sound that floated aloft while still secured to their source-work Baroque rhythmic engine.
  • Catherine Laub, soprano, has infectious energy on stage whether in the role of soloist, in duet with counter-tenor Mark Donnelly, or as composer. She kept me on the edge of my pew especially with her beautifully expressive performance of Purcell’s “Sweeter than roses”.
  • Jeff Pelletier, flute, played the “Aria” from J.S. Bach’s Coffee Cantata with a regal restraint (not too much vibrato), which matched Bach’s more thoughtful Baroque. The sparkly vest in the second half was a highlight too.
  • Counter-tenor Mark Donnelly’s Farinelli voice was preternaturally high enough to make a job of keeping your eyes from drifting south (to check all was where it should be) and instead enjoy his beautiful singing for what it is, especially in Handel’s “Furibondo, spira il vento” (Furiously blows the wind).
  • Tenor Will George added great rhythmic energy to the before version of “Svegliatevi nel core”.
  • I don’t know how she did it, but Julia Nolan pulled off the extremely fast baritone sax licks in the re-imagining of Bach English Suite III “Prelude”, which probably would have sat quite harmlessly on the bassoon.
  • Stefan Hintersteininger’s re-imagining of Monteverdi’s “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo” (I gaze at you) was a hilarious throwback to his “Duke of Earl” inspired “Bunny’s Day Off” performed at Colin MacDonald’s Pocket Orchestra last November.
  • Matthew Emery, in the re-imagining of Purcell’s “Sweeter than roses” found many beautiful harmonies and gestures not in the original and in so doing transcended the source material.
  • Remy Siu’s re-imaging of “Dido’s Lament” took the original Henry Purcell work to such a haunting depth, it’s likely the church had to be re-consecrated after the show was over.

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