Celebrated soprano Sherezade Panthaki says that her “light bulb” moment came as a teenager in Pune, India. She was singing “O Holy Night” at her St. Mary’s School concert. That’s when she realized how much she enjoyed looking out at the large audience and seeing them take in the music.
“It was in a church with lovely acoustics and there were candles,” Panthaki tells Pancouver over Zoom. “It was my first time singing a solo. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
The Mumbai-born Panthaki went on to become an internationally renowned singer of early music, which comprises medieval, Renaissance, and baroque compositions. Last year, Panthaki toured Austria and Germany with Vienna-based Orchester Wiener Akademie. And she has sang several times in Japan with famed organist, harpsichordist, and conductor Masaaki Suzuki.
In addition, Panthaki is a lecturer in music and coordinator of voice instruction at Mount Holyoake College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
“I loved vocal music of all kinds but I never really felt like my voice identified with singing Verdi and Puccini,” Panthaki says. “Somehow, when I discovered early music, it was like I had come home. It felt so natural and instinctive. I had a sense that I understood the style in a way that I almost couldn’t explain.”
Panthaki is one of four soloists who will perform George Frideric Handel’s Messiah on Friday (December 8) at the Orpheum Theatre. The Early Music Vancouver and Vancouver Chamber Choir event will also feature alto Allyson McHardy, tenor Nicholas Scott, and bass Jonathan Adams, all of whom will perform from memory.
“I love Handel’s Messiah so much—it’s a piece that I’ve performed probably the most in my life,” Panthaki says. “I think I’ve passed 225 performances.”
Panthaki appreciates nuances of Messiah audiences
She believes that Messiah is the most well-known choral piece in North America. According to Panthaki, every conductor puts a unique stamp on it and every chorus sings it differently. Alexander Weimann will conduct the Pacific Baroque Orchestra at the upcoming performance at the Orpheum.
Moreover, the soprano points out that audiences bring diverse experiences to Messiah.
“So many folks grew up listening to it, attending performances of it, and perhaps singing it in their church choirs,” Panthaki says. “Some know the piece from front to back. And for some people, it’s a completely new experience.
“Some come into it from a spiritual angle; some come to it from a musical angle,” she continues. “It’s a wonderful mix of folks that you encounter at these concerts. Our job as an artist is to try to feed all of those souls in whatever way makes sense to them.”
Panthaki also finds joy in improvising, which she says is a key aspect of baroque music. She certainly plans to incorporate this into the upcoming Handel’s Messiah concert in Vancouver.
“Because I know it so well, I encourage myself to make up ornamentation on-stage, just to add something new that I have never done before,” Panthaki reveals.
Growing up in a home filled with music
Early music was written before there were any recordings, which sets it apart from other styles. As a result, Panthaki says that that it often entails digging into the unknown. She loves looking for clues from old manuscripts and drawing conclusions from various markings on the pages.
“Some of the music I’ve recorded has never been recorded or has never been performed since the 17th century,” she says.
Panthaki has never sang in Vancouver before but she still has a connection to the city. Her piano teacher, Roxana Anklesaria, studied at UBC.
“She made sure that we had a lot of music theory and music education,” Panthaki reveals. “So, I’m very fortunate that I had quite an extensive classical music education well before my undergraduate years.”
Anklesaria, like Panthaki, is Parsi. This community of Zoroastrians migrated from Persia to the Indian subcontinent in the eighth and ninth centuries to escape forced conversion to Islam. They originally settled in Gujarat and over the centuries, many Parsis moved to the neighbouring state of Maharashtra. They’ve thrived in Mumbai and Pune in many fields, including the professions, arts, and business.
Panthaki’s mother was a teacher and encouraged her to learn piano at a very young age.
“I grew up in a household full of music,” she says. “My father loved listening to classical music as well as old Hindi film songs and Indian classical music. And my mother primarily loved listening to western classical music. She passed away when I was quite young.”
In those days, there was nowhere in India to study classical music at the collegiate level, so Panthaki went abroad, earning a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia Wesleyan College. While studying for a master’s degree at the University of Illinois, she came in contact with a strong contingent of early music educators, including harpsichordist Charlotte Mattox Moersch.
“It was the first time I realized that early music could be a career choice,” Panthaki says.
Later, she was awarded an artist diploma with top honours from the Yale School of Music and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. She describes this experience as “life-changing”, bringing her in contact with some of the world’s most accomplished conductors and singers.
Panthaki promotes diverse performers
This set her up for professional work in early music and oratorio. In the past year, Panthaki was the featured soloist on different world premieres by composers Reena Esmail, Trevor Weston, and Frances White.
One of Panthaki’s passions is opening doors for others as a founding member and artistic adviser of Kaleidoscope Vocal Ensemble. It’s a vocal group comprised of members living in Canada and the United States who celebrates racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in performances of early and new music. It also promotes educational programs, including through Zoom workshops.
Furthermore, Caroline Phillips Management has described Panthaki as an “evangelist” for more South Asian participation in early music.
It’s clear that Panthaki wants to give back to the community. This reflects the Parsi ethos of “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds”.
“That’s something I’ve heard all my life,” Panthaki says. “I heard it from my grandparents; I heard it from my parents. For the most part, the Parsi community really does take that very seriously. You treat others in the way you would want to be treated.”
Early Music Vancouver and Vancouver Chamber Choir will present George Frideric Handel’s Messiah at 7:30 p.m. on Friday (December 8) at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver. For tickets and information, visit earlymusic.bc.ca.