Friday, June 02, 2017

Italian Passages IV: Seasonal Perspectives

[The fourth in an irregular series of commentaries on Minnesota Public Radio’s  Italian Passages classical music-themed cruise and tour of Italy, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the network's daily live concert program, Performance Today and led by PT host Fred Child.]

Anyone who thinks that spontaneity has no place in classical music would certainly have been disabused of that notion by the lively performance of Vivaldi's Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) that capped our second full day in Venice.

The private concert at the Chiesa San Vidal featured the Venice-based Baroque ensemble Interpreti Veneziani (who were presenting a series of public Vivaldi concerts in the same venue) with the solo violin part performed by our tour's resident violinist, former Performance Today Young Artist in Residence Anthea Kreston. A highly regarded performer who also happens to be a very entertaining and insightful music blogger, Ms. Kreston had done some advanced preparation for the concert by learning the specific version of the solo part used by Interpreti Veneziani (including the specific bowing). But because of our tour schedule she had only 47 minutes of actual rehearsal time with her fellow musicians on the day of the concert.

That meant that there was plenty of give and take between her and the seven members of Interpreti during the performance, which included some modest but perfectly chosen ornamentation (the improvised elaboration of the solo line that is an essential part of Baroque performance practice) by Ms. Kreston. The lines of communication were so well established that someone who was unaware of the evening's background would probably have assumed that Ms. Kreston was a regular member of the group.

It was all quite impressive and great fun as well when matched with Fred Child's readings of the four sonnets that describe the scenes portrayed in Vivaldi's music. The poems are attributed to Vivaldi (although their actual authorship is uncertain) and are often presented in rather dated and stodgy translations in the English-speaking world. Mr. Child reworked them into something more conversational and witty and delivered them in the approachable, friendly style that will be familiar to Performance Today listeners.

It was, in a way, his own form of Baroque ornamentation.

Ms. Kreston's performance was revealed as all the more impressive the next day on the return bus trip from a tour of Palladian architecture in Vicenza, as she discussed in more detail that kinds of adjustments that a performer accustomed to modern performance practices is obliged to make when playing with an ensemble of Baroque specialists using reproductions of period instruments. Tuning, bowing, and other fundamental aspects of violin playing are very different—as are the bows themselves. I was somewhat in awe of the fact that she managed to absorb all of that and deliver a very idiomatic reading on such short notice.

"Brava," as the say at the opera.

Speaking of Mr. Palladio: the highlight of the Vicenza tour for me was a visit to the Teatro Olimpico. Designed in deliberate imitation of ancient Roman amphitheater (albeit with walls and a ceiling), the Olimpico boasts a stage on which is installed the original trompe de l'oeil set designed by Palladio in 1588 (and pictured above). The central street is a triumph of false perspective and such a convincing optical illusion that even after seeing how shallow the space is that houses it really is, it still seems to go on forever.

Unlike our trip, which seems to be flying by far too quickly.

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