When two forces of nature, mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital and the esteemed Venice Baroque Orchestra made friendly jousts on the Shalin Liu stage Friday July 12th, dazzling fireworks ensued.
Delayed by heavy traffic, the musicians arrived only 45 minutes before their 7:30 curtain, having played the night before in Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood. In his introduction, Barry Shiffmann, Rockport Music’s Artistic Director, told the audience that the players had asked him for only three essential things: coffee, chocolate, and cigarettes. He complied with the first two.
The ensemble came on stage showing no sign of their travel travails, and launched the evening with Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in D Minor after Corelli’s (Violin) Sonata Op.5, No. 12 “La Folia.” Not at all a complacent Fusignanian, Corelli, a violin virtuoso, in his later years had been described by a contemporary as “…a conceited fellow, half mad,” whose “…eyes will sometimes turn as red as fire, the countenance will be distorted, his eyeballs roll as in agony.” No surprise then to discern a certain dæmonic drive in the orchestra’s attack, which from where I sat took on an unpleasant edge. A bit too much pre-concert caffeine, perhaps? Wonderful dialogues played between concertmaster Gianpiero Zanocco and first cellist Massimo Raccanelli provided some of the many notable niceties of this vigorous opener.
Avi Avital, whose personality and leadership virtually dominated the evening, arrived onstage with his arrangement of Vivaldi’s 1730 Concerto in D Major for Lute, which followed the accustomed fast-slow-fast pattern. After the brisk and bright opening Allegro, and the contemplative and dreamy Largo, the final Allegro became an infectious romp, egged on by vigorous pizzicati from contra-bassist Ivano Zanenghi. Avital’s arrangement seemed especially appropriate, sounding as if it had been Vivaldi’s original plan. And, it likely was, in a way. I later learned that in those days, lutenists played his concerti with soprano lutes, close in sonority to the modern mandolin. In fact, the Italian for this instrument is mandalo or mandolino.
The orchestra continued magisterially with the Concerto in G Major for Strings, Op. 7, No. 4 by Tomasso Albinoni, as players watched each other, lightly smiling when pleased, an eyebrow lowered if not, but invariably collaborative and tuned in. One marveled at the variegated yet unified interpretation and sound.
Avital returned with Anna Fusek, a second violinist, who would skillfully double on a diminutive recorder, duetting with Avital in his arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Major for Mandolin and Recorder, RV 532. Originally a concerto for two solo mandolins, Avital decided that it would work equally effectively for one mandolin and one recorder, since the composer’s writing for mandolin consists mainly of a single melodic line written in the soprano clef. To the delight of the audience and the evident entertainment of the amiable orchestra members, the two soloists called and responded to one another energetically, soaring through the concerto’s many virtuoso demands, often adding dazzling ornamentation. With this, the first half came to a brilliant end, earning abundant cheers.
After intermission, during which many of the musicians raced outdoors for deeply-inhaled cigarette puffs, the orchestra gave Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Minor RV 127 with enormous panache and near-perfect unison playing, which pervaded both the first and third movements. I mention this as perfect unisons are difficult to achieve, especially when playing with period-appropriate minimal vibrato. No problem for these wizards!
With his astonishing concentration and vivid coloration, Avital then soloed in Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C-Major, RV 425, the composer’s only known solo concerto for that instrument. Why did this sound so different, so effervescent? Well, the string orchestra accompaniment, usually bowed, was played entirely pizzicato. This made for a very “perky” tone, and once the surprise faded, became enormously appealing.
An orchestra member then reminded us that today’s Italy is not the country of Vivaldi’s time. Rather, it was then a collection of fiercely independent and sometimes competitive city-states, all with differing cuisines, governments, attire, traits, and personalities. This was to point up the musical differences between the Neapolitan Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) and the Venetian Vivaldi (1678-1741). And indeed, the Concerto in E-Flat Major for Mandolin, attributed to Paisiello only in 1970, sounded very different from the Venetian’s. Its melodic line was less spiky, more lyric, embracing Classical period affectations, and scalar chromaticism became abundant. While he could charm with this concerto, Paisiello’s greater talent would seem to have been opera writing, having composed 100 to great acclaim in his day.
The stormiest performance of Vivaldi’s G-Minor Op. 8 No. 2 that one could hope to hear followed: L’estate (Summer) from The Four Seasons in Avital’s arrangement for strings and mandolin solo
One would have thought that this late in a program, so much of it Vivaldi, that the ear would tire of this composer. Not so. If anything, especially with this wonderfully dramatic and evocative music, reminded us of Vivaldi’s towering genius. Stormy? Oh, yes! Vivaldi’s musical depictions of the oppressive summer heat, the distant thunderstorm rumbling in the distance and then its crashing torrents simply thrilled, as we watched the concurrent lightning flashes of a distant storm illuminate the night sky above Sandy Bay.
The indefatigable Avital and the Venetians instilled L’estate with the most vivid colors and sounds anyone could summon at the end of a generous show. This tour de force stunned and amazed the grateful, cheering crowd.
The players obliged with the slow movement of a Vivaldi concerto originally written for recorder and strings. And with that benison, another memorable Rockport Chamber Music Festival concert floated to a close. After the musical and electrical storms, a balmy and calm moonlit summer night gently beckoned.
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 40 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 47 years.