Your presence here testifies to the enduring interest of the baroque among listeners. Indeed, The Four Seasons, composed around 1715 by Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741), stands as one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire. But what exactly is “baroque” music? The term often refers to a particular period, roughly 1600-1750, right before the “classical” period dominated by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. But “baroque” also signals a widespread style marked by the ornate, the dramatic, and the virtuosic. As you listen, you sometimes feel that the players are testing the limit of what is possible.
The Four Seasons, a set of four three-movement violin concertos, certainly embodies those general characteristics—but its popularity stems as well from its rich descriptive nature. Of course, program music had been written before (those of you who heard our performance of Biber’s Battalia may remember its gunfire and carousing soldiers). Still, it’s hard to think of anything as graphic as The Four Seasons. For its first publication in 1725, as part of a larger collection, Vivaldi added a sonnet to each concerto, providing a verbal report of the events described in the music. But from the chirping of the birds that open “Spring” through the barking dog in the next movement, on to the shivering winds of “Winter,” you really don’t need the literary cheat-sheet to appreciate the music’s kaleidoscopic imagery.
This music is familiar from movies, TV ads, street musicians, supermarkets…. It’s so familiar, in fact, that it’s easy to treat it, in conductor Christian Capocaccia’s words, as “light music” and to let it slip by. We hope you’ll take this concert as a chance to gain a renewed appreciation what Christian calls its “depth” in the way it uses its details. It should be an especially good opportunity to refresh your sense of the piece, since our soloist, Timothy Chooi, is keen to “replicate the sounds that are in the poems” and to “pass the images on to the audience.” He’s a self-described “experimental” performer, too. You’ll hear this most dramatically at the end of “Winter,” where Vivaldi describes slipping on the ice: “Here there are moments where I play it ponticello, on the bridge.” But beyond that, for Timothy, every performance is a chance to rethink the piece—in part because every orchestra has a different take on it. This will definitely not be Vivaldi on auto-pilot.
Our opener, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, composed some time before 1721 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), is arguably even more ornate than The Four Seasons, although in a different way. There’s no descriptive element, but the presence of three soloists (violin and two recorders, replaced this afternoon, as in many modern performances, by flutes), rather than one, gives us a clue as to the nature of the work’s complexity. The Bach is a “concerto grosso,” a popular baroque form that pits a group of soloists (the “concertino”) against a larger ensemble (the “ripieno”). Especially in Bach’s hands, the form sets up two simultaneous, yet equally important, levels of interaction—the complex interplay within the solo group is layered over the conversation between them and the string ripieno. The resulting music is extremely intricate, most dizzyingly in the third movement fugue. Yet so shrewd is Bach’s ability to keep everything together that the sense of the whole remains clear—as we are caught up in its bubbly enthusiasm, we are struck with wonder, not confusion.
Just as your presence here testifies to the enduring interest of the baroque among listeners, the program itself—in particular, the work we’re including between these two baroque masterpieces—testifies to the lure of the baroque, especially Bach, for later composers. Even when the baroque was out of vogue (Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was largely forgotten until Mendelssohn revived it in 1829, and the Brandenburg Concertos were lost until twenty years later), composers like Mozart and Beethoven were inspired by baroque models. That inspiration continued through Schumann and Liszt to Schoenberg and Webern, and on to the present. In 2006, Orpheus—a conductor-less chamber orchestra— initiated The New Brandenburgs, giving commissions to six composers, each of whom was asked to use one of the Brandenburgs as a departure point. The result was a set of works that simultaneously honors the past and looks into the future.
Melinda Wagner (b. 1957), whose Flute Concerto won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, was asked take off from the Brandenburg No. 4—and the resulting work forms the centerpiece of this afternoon’s concert. Its title (Little Moonhead ) whimsically squishes the titles of the three movements—the last of which, “Fiddlehead,” is itself a pun, referring both to the ferns which often find their way into the family’s salad and to the violin part, which Mindy (as she’s known to her friends) describes as “fast and furious, with lots of rosin flying around.” A similar whimsicality infects the entire piece. As with Bach, though, everything fits perfectly together. In Christian’s words, “It’s so economic!” Other contemporary composers are apt to “splurge” on their ideas; Mindy uses her basic material “eloquently” to develop a story that’s “perceptible” to the audience.
What’s Little Moonhead’s connection to Bach? Although she uses Bach’s instrumentation (with the addition of a celesta), Mindy insists that it’s not a Bach pastiche or a “quasi-baroque” work. Rather, she says, the “feel” of Bach’s first movement served as a “gateway” that got her moving. Yet while she generally avoids imitation, the spirit of the original work infuses the new one. There are lots of echoes in the Bach (note in particular the way the flutes echo each other in the second movement), and there are echoes in the Wagner as well. In addition, in the Bach there’s a section where the violinist “almost goes berserk”—so at end of her piece, Mindy wanted “some fireworks,” too. Then, too, she used a technique called “bariolage” (rapid movement back and forth over several strings, producing an unexpected juxtaposition of colors). “Not unlike Bach,” she says, “but the notes are very different!” Besides its connection to Bach, there’s a connection to Central New York, too: Mindy did her undergraduate work at Hamilton College, and later taught at Syracuse University.
So how should you listen? “When you come to a piece you’ve never heard before,” says Mindy, “no matter the century in which it was written, try to just listen for varying textures—density or transparency—and whether you’re being led toward to some kind of climax or whether you’re winding down or just biding time. All of those things help you understand the shape of the music, no matter how unfamiliar the notes are.”
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org