Applauding Vivaldi’s Joyful Noise
On the day composer Antonio Vivaldi was born, legend has it that an earthquake shook his native city of Venice, Italy. One may consider that a harbinger of the effect the Baroque composer, violin virtuoso and Catholic priest would one day have on the world of classical music.
The earth may not have moved Friday for the opening concert of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Masterworks series at the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater in Madison, but that may have been due to the heights to which guest artist and violin virtuoso Linda Yang soared while performing Vivaldi’s most famous work, “The Four Seasons, Op. 8.”
The composition is a series of four violin concertos with three individual movements each, portraying different aspects of the seasons and, perhaps, representing the 12 months of the year. Throughout the exuberant work creeks babble, birds sing, flies buzz and all manner of natural and human phenomena are captured in the music. The composition’s intricate structure does little to hamper its joy, but puts musicians performing it to the test in keeping up with the composer’s joyful enthusiasm.
Yang, a last minute substitute for Alexander Sitkovetsky who was downed by the flu, debuted at age 9 with Zubin Mehta and New York Philharmonic. Since then she has attained considerable stature as one of the brightest virtuosic lights of her generation. The violinist and her instrument, a 1767 J.B. Guadagnin – a violin nearly as old as the composer of the music she played – led WCO’s often impressive string section and harpsichordist John Chappell Stowe through some rapid paces that resulted in a thoroughly satisfying performance.
Rapid bowing and precise delineation are hallmarks of Vivaldi’s work, the familiar themes from which are so often sampled that one wonders what films, commercials and broadcast outlets would have done had it never been composed. Yang’s performance was nothing less than remarkable, with WCO’s strings providing depth and context to the performance. Hearing the work played in its entirety gives one an added appreciation for the composition as a whole, well beyond its themes, and a better understanding of the contributions Vivaldi made to music.
Personal illnesses kept us from staying for part two of the concert featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. But we were treated to an unusual evening opener that alone may have been worth the price of admission.
Michael Daugherty’s “Strut,” composed in 1989, imagines the ramblings of African-American bass-baritone Paul Robeson through Harlem. The five-minute composition for strings tosses themes from the violins to the cellos to the violas and back again, using the instruments as occasional percussive devices and developing structures far outside those of Vivaldi that followed. Even if it was nothing more than and impressive warm-up for the musical rigors to follow, “Strut” stretched the capabilities and views of the performers and audience in new and interesting directions. We applaud Maestro Andrew Sewell, just starting his 11th WCO season, for once again broadening our musical understanding and appreciation.