As the first few bars of The Four Seasons were chimed pertly and triumphantly on Friday night, one was torn between two emotions. The first was an overwhelming feeling of smugness and satisfaction: there we all were, snugly ensconced between other discriminating members of the audience (who as usual, skewed heavily towards elderly and intellectual-looking patricians), letting the easy beauty and irresistible harmonic appeal of this veritable icon of listener popularity waft over us. This, presumably, is classical music in its ideal form for most people: none of your unnecessary violence, bombast, or discordance, thank you; just lovely, accessible music that one can appreciate without the hassle of knowing its more esoteric elements.
Alternately, one might have responded with acute embarrassment to what is easily one of the most over-exposed pieces of Western music, vainly attempting to stifle the memories of countless commercials that have exploited this piece to convey an atmosphere of class and gentility not immediately apparent in the advertised product. Its very accessibility and broad appeal have caused its downfall, condemning it almost to the status of musical kitschthe aural equivalent of Mona Lisaand to CDs with titles like, Classical Music for People Who Hate Classical Music.
But because this sadly hackneyed piece was played in its Chicago debut by the Venice Baroque Orchestra, which is known for specializing in historical performance practice, the layers of negative association were stripped off, and one was more or less free to enjoy the piece as it was presumably meant to be heard.
Any Vivaldi, but specifically this piece as interpreted by any number of otherwise respectable and noteworthy orchestras, tends to have all the grace and elegance of a corpulent bourgeois matron complacently fussing over her furs. Little wonder, then, that Vivaldi's music has long been heaped with such derisive epithets as "hippie muzak" and "wallpaper music," when they often treat his materials as they would, say Bruckner with a swooning romanticism and heavy overwrought pomposity that renders the music merely insipid and desultory, a poor relation to the actual Romantics. Such interpretations are not entirely without justification, as Vivaldi is seen by such indisputable sources as the Grove as "the harbinger of Romanticism, who placed higher value on expression than on perfection of detail," and one can easily see how some overzealous conductors might have felt when they were rescuing this Byronic figure from the darkness of the 1700s and played his music with excessive emotions and sentimentality that it rightly deserved. Yet despite our ability to guess at the motivations behind these depressing renditions, they are still woefully misguided; sighting what might later develop into Romanticism in a composer's work is one thing, but deciding to perform a piece in a style not fully realized for nearly a century after his death is grossly irresponsible.
Thankfully, the days of the stolid, insipid Vivaldi seem to be over, due to a new wave of ensembles like the Venice Baroque Orchestra who have made it their business to instill some new life into the music and rescue it from the dreary clutches of the mainstream by playing with authentic 18th century technique and orchestration. Though one might take this to be a dubious exercise, and best reserved for strictly archival or historical purposes (for example, the restaging of a concert in Venice, complete with traditional 18th century garb), the return to a more authentic interpretation paradoxically sounds new and slightly foreign to the ear, and critics of the VBO seem to find no end of delight in bandying phrases like "fresh," "innovative" and "dazzling." Indeed.
In the capable hands of Andrea Marcon, coolly presiding over the ensemble from his harpsichord, the music struck a lovely balance between authenticity and the sort of harmonious beauty one associates with The Four Seasons, neither element being sacrificed for the other. The music sounded sprightly, precise and each dynamic more vivid and distinct. It would be easy to credit this change simply to their playing, but in truth the VBO is only one of several baroque ensembles that plays Vivaldi, and out of those is by no means the most committed to historical accuracy. However, this is not necessarily negative, for to approach something like music with excessive pedantry to historical accuracy is about as useful as insisting on staging Shakespeare with all-male casts; it was on account of the ensemble's commitment to the true spirit of Vivaldi that made the music sparkle.
Another novel aspect of the work delightfully revealed on Friday night was that the piece is a tone poem. With accompanying verses composed by Vivaldi for each section, the plots are closely (even literally) mirrored by the music. In addition to proving Vivaldi's adeptness at making the music eloquently reflect the plot of the verses (the piece was, after all, originally published in a collection entitled The Test of Harmony and Invention), the poems themselves invite a broader understanding of the seasons, rather than the pastoral glorification of Nature in all her resplendent glory that one might expect from the genre and time period. However, some of the verses charmingly betray Vivaldi's unmistakably Venetian frame of mind: he portrays summer in the country, perhaps one of the most poetically praised times of the year, as riddled with natural disasters and swarms of bugs, and winter for him means "spending quiet contented days by the fire while the rain outside drenches people by the hundreds "
The only hindrance to my unreserved enjoyment of the concert was the mediocre playing and preposterous antics of the first violinist, Giuliano Carmignola. The Four Seasons was clearly the orchestra's showpiece, and their skillful playing reflected this, but conversely, in some of the lesser-known violin concertos Mr. Carmignola's playing seemed distinctly out of synch with that of his colleagues; perhaps a casualty of his flaunting solos, carried off with an excess of panache and flourish, which his abilities in no way merited. Some members of the audience seemed to find it perfectly hysterical when during the Spring section meant to represent the twittering of woodland birds, Mr. Carmignola repeatedly tilted his head back to examine the space directly above his head with a puzzled air, a trick he was able to reprise to the same effect in Autumn with falling leaves. Needless to say, I was not among those chuckling.
But a little silliness did not manage to ruin the overall pleasure of Vivaldi played faithfully, and the innate beauty of the music easily trumped any trifling dissatisfaction. One can only hope that this is the beginning of a marked trend in authentic baroque music and in people listening to Vivaldi with renewed interest--each sordid memory of the countless commercials and poorly interpreted orchestrations growing ever fainter as this sort of playing begins to become the norm rather than the exception.