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Baroque Music Refreshed with L’Académie


Vivaldi’s setting of Psalm 126 (RV 608) was composed for the Ospedale della Pietà, the Venetian orphanage where he worked most of his life. The music reflects several aspects of its composer: ordained priest, virtuoso performer, opera impresario and teacher of the young musicians at the “Ospedale.”  That amalgam of faith, virtuosity, drama, and energy composed over 200 years ago came across like an original commission for period-instrument ensemble L’Académie, contralto Emily Marvosh, and their director Leslie Kwan at Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill last night. This program will be repeated tonight.

The piece opened with tight, muscular strings for “Nisi Dominus” (“Unless the Lord”) and Marvosh’s crisp, spirited delivery across Vivaldi’s winding phrases (with a velvety, full tone at every phrase-ending “eam,” (“it”).  For the lilting “Cum Dederit” (“When He Gives”), Marvosh repeated “fructus ventris” (“fruit of the womb”) several times, each time more caressing and convincing.  Her words floating over the orchestra’s firm chromatic ground made for solemn “church music,” while the “arrows” described in “Sicut Sagittae” made for a thoroughly operatic display.

Sweet-toned violinist Joan Plana joined Marvosh in perfect balance here and during the “Gloria Patri” (“Glory to the Father”) to make music where many performers might hear filler.  The text of “Sicut Erat In Principio” (“As It Was In The Beginning”) was reinforced by the full orchestra’s incisive rhythm, while “Beatus Vir” “(“Blessed Is”) was enhanced by the warm, sparse but assured continuo, especially Kwan’s rock steady harpsichord.  Marvosh’s clean articulation in all registers, combined with the ensemble’s driving accompaniment, made the closing “Amen” an invigorating climax as well as another welcome display.

Highlighting fresh material as well as fresh interpretations, L’Académie also hosted the New England premiere of composer and viola da gamba player Andrew Arceci’s Suite Two in G minor for Gamba, Strings and Percussion, with Arceci as conductor and soloist. Arecci explained that the work included some last-minute changes from the original score for a more “intimate” setting.  Smaller forces and midnight oil notwithstanding, the work remained emotionally powerful and cogent.

The first movement of Arceci’s suite alternated the soloist’s meditative phrases with dissonant orchestral outbursts, choreographing an internal battle between harsh memories and the will to move on. The second movement featured Arceci’s silken runs against simply placed but powerful viola harmonies, and the strident march that closed the work was voiced for violins in their lowest range.  As a soloist, Arceci displayed a thick, metallic tone in the lower register with throaty, well-placed high notes.  L’Académie in turn followed his cues with precision and nuance to the work’s forlorn end.

The program was bookended by more traditional Baroque instrumentals.  A priest, polymath, and pupil of Corelli, Franceso Bonporti’s compositions were once mistakenly attributed to Bach, who actually incorporated some of them into his own works.  Bonporti’s lively Concerto No. 11 from his Opus 2 opened the evening, with violin soloist Plana displaying organic phrasing but frequent squeaks.  The ensemble was slightly muddled in the fussy Allegro, though Stephanie Corwin’s bassoon helped reinforce the textures.

Another Francesco and another pupil of Corelli, Geminiani was an influential violin teacher whose best-known work remains his Opus 5, concerto grosso arrangements of his teacher’s violin sonatas.  Geminiani ended that collection with his own variation on La Folia, a folk dance in D minor and favorite among Baroque composers.  L’Académie clearly enjoyed this piece, from the cool, sexy glaze of the strings in the fourth variation, to the warm dialog for unaccompanied violin and cello (played sensitively by Colleen McGary-Smith) in the seventh, right through to the grand, strutting finale.  The use of castanets may or may not be historically accurate, but they merely ornamented (rather than drove) an already snapping beat.  Kwan introduced this work to close the evening by telling the audience, “I hope you’re ready to dance.”  Like the rest of the program, her statement was as revealing as it was entertaining.

Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz, and blogs on a variety of music (including Vivaldi every Sunday) at  He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.

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