Tag Archives: Vivaldi

Non Significa Nulla Se No Swing

This post began as an internal housekeeping project, but for practical as well as promotional purposes I decided to share my reviews for Early Music America online.  I have had the privilege of listening to and writing about a wide variety of music for this informative, lovingly edited magazine.  Not all of these recordings are the type of eighteenth century swing I typically cover on this blog but each of them is worth a listen. After all, if you haven’t heard it yet, that makes it new music.

Please pause, fast-forward or zoom in on the slideshow as needed, and enjoy!

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More Music, That Pop

Thank George for sharing Richard Hamilton’s definition of “pop art”:


“Pop Art” does refer to a very specific visual arts movement of the mid-twentieth century, but I thought I’d abuse the term and apply Hamilton’s criterion to some of the music bandied about on this blog (just click to enlarge):

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 11.36.19 AMAs far as the scores go, Vivaldi comes out as the most “pop” while Mozart gets the lowest score, which should satisfy most professional music historians. King Oliver and the California Ramblers tying is sure to irritate jazz purists; Oliver would probably just be happy, and surprised, to know that people are still listening to his music.

I’m happy to justify these scores and be proven wrong in the process.  The scoreboard also includes a few blank columns so you can do your own critical introspection (or vivisection) at home!

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“How Far Will The Vivaldi Revival Go” And Other Forecasts

I’ve kept this review bookmarked since shortly after it was published, and it continues to fascinate me:


Nearly six years of Vivaldi recordings (including Naïve’s project) as well as live performances since this article was printed might not be enough to prove that its writer spoke too soon. “Far” is a very subjective term. Rather than a cause for gloating, this article makes me pause for gratitude: right now, musicians continue to perform Vivaldi’s “lively, bouncy” works.

As for the “pointlessness” of Dario or any of Vivaldi’s music, it’s safer to say that the composer must have had a few more ideas up his sleeve, or that sometimes energy and rhythm is enough. The only thing I have to ask is, how far will critics’ comparisons between Vivaldi and Handel (or Bach, or Mozart, etc.) go?

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Stating The Obvious About Killin’ Music

On the heels of music by Stan King, Clarence Williams and Dick McDonough, today’s blog features more freewheeling, witty interplay between a soloist and an ensemble riding atop a spare but spurring rhythm section, with the type of fiery spontaneity that only improvisation can (seem to) bring to a performance:

That’s right: a concerto by Vivaldi for an instrument (now) typically associated with elementary schools rather than nightclubs, or for that matter concert halls, performed by a group of conservatory-trained sheet music readers.

It ‘s derivative, maybe even pointless, to point out that this is not the work of longhaired, flannel-shirted hipsters or Berklee-bred Traneophiles. The musicians are young, yet the music isn’t (on paper at least). The fact that the music was written by one of the deadest, whitest males out there doesn’t bother Ensemble Matheus. “Dig” the way their bassist leans his phrasing and his whole body into his part, or leader and first-violinist Jean-Christophe Spinosi’s gaping smile at the close of recorder player Sebastian Marq’s cadenza.

As for the recorder’s popular associations, it’s tempting to say Marq splits the difference between the precision of the conservatory, the fire of the jazz club and the joy of the playground, but why stereotype the musician or those institutions? Listen to Marq’s plunging arpeggios, pin wheeling runs and the joyously chirping trills: Marq plays like a man who knows what he’s doing and enjoys doing it. Perhaps best of all, this is not a perfectly polished, stereotypically “classical” performance. High notes in the second movement do at times turn a little shaky (comes with the territory on this “axe”), but does it matter amidst all of that warm lyricism or that “killin’” third movement finale? Who’s dead, what’s written down or when it was penned is inconsequential. This groups shreds. Yet you all already knew that, right? My apologies if I made any assumptions.

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L’Academie Going Strong, But Was There Any Doubt?

Last February I was disappointed to write about L’Academie going on hiatus but I knew I’d be hearing more from this group of talented young musicians. The period instrument ensemble was bound to find an outlet for their exciting, well-executed and above all highly original programming. A series of free outreach concerts at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute was enough to confirm my expectations.

Now L’Academie has announced that the Boston Symphony Orchestra will be underwriting those concerts as the group’s first corporate sponsor. L’Academie’s dedication, musicality and creativity have not only earned them financial support, but new audiences to enjoy the power and joy of eighteenth century music. It really is good to be right.

Congratulations to L’ Academie and its harpsichordist, founder and General Director Leslie Kwan, and kudos to the BSO for its generosity and wisdom. See you around Boston (and who knows where else).

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Vivaldi Deserves Sloppy Listening

picFor several weeks Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic covered a different Vivaldi concerto every Sunday. He’s one of my favorite composers, a statement that for most serious classical listeners is like expressing one’s love for Kraft singles at a wine and cheese party.  Stravinsky’s quip about Vivaldi writing the same concerto six hundred times still has critical as well as popular (enough) legs.

Domenica con Vivaldi was an attempt to stick up for a musician who takes a lot of merda for having a recognizable, occasionally redundant but ultimately satisfying style. It was also a chance to hear the many soloists, ensembles and approaches that make Vivaldi’s music interesting and relevant.  It started with personal favorites in no particular order but then began surveying the published works, starting with Vivaldi’s game changing Opus Three, then onto the wild stravaganze of Opus Four and through to the famous “Four Seasons” concerti of Opus 8.

Then it stopped.

I stopped. Aside from the incessant demands by dozens and then thousands of readers, clamoring for yet still more Vivaldi (perhaps an exaggeration), the column began to miss the point.  It began listening for something, rather than listening to the music. One approach focuses on the listener’s preconceived notions, the other on the music.  One is an exercise, the other an exploration.

Listening to Vivaldi’ music  in a less tidy manner and letting the music find its own way into my ears and mind has worked out far better. Lately, instead of the neatly organized publications assembled by Vivaldi and/or his publisher, I’ve stayed hooked through the magic of my iPod’s “Shuffle” setting.  Listening randomly to just the five albums of Vivaldi concertos on the Naïve label, I get the sweet, singing pirouettes of the Violin Concerto in E (RV268) with I Barrochisti’s charming organ continuo:

Pomo D’Oro’s spiky harp and plucking violins making string percussion on RV181a:

and Enrico Onofri sculpting with fire in the final movement of the Violin Concerto in D, “L’Inquietudine” (RV 234, “Restlessness”):

That last one really hammers home the difference between exercise and exploration: few soloists can make technical passages like these interesting, let alone riveting. Slower but just as intense, the Adagio from the Violin Concerto in G (RV307) features I Barocchisti’s soft, dewy strings bookending a passionate solo by Duilio Galfetti:

Those strings murmuring behind Galfetti remind me of Wagner discussing another Italian composer’s music, using a description that’s so far from the point it takes you full circle back to it. The Godfather of Snob compared Donizetti’s orchestration to a “big guitar.”  Pity Wagner and Stravinsky never get their group hate on.

Wagner’s description may seem to apply to Vivaldi’s music, but of course the difference is that a string section (especially one like I Barrochisti) can never be a big guitar.  They sound different, and in the end music is sound.  A guitar and a string section can both lay down harmonies but will never do the same thing. All of these tracks, plus the other ninety-six or so on my iPod, are for a violin soloist with orchestra. They’re also all written by same composer, who does use a lot of sequences as well as signature harmonies and rhythms. Yet they can never be the same music.


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It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Da Capo Ornamentation

Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic is officially adopting pianist/composer Helen Sung‘s definition of “swing.” Understanding it as “the irresistible forward motion that makes you want to get up, dance and groove” not only explains the most common examples of the term, it opens up just the right application for this blog.

This writer always heard Baroque music as European art music with a beat. For example, Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto doesn’t just get feet tapping to its firm duple meter. It gets the head bobbing in sync to those cellos and double-basses booming in on every other beat:

Vivaldi’s strutting Concerto for Four Violins works a similar effect:

Vivaldi’s elegance, Bach’s sheer brilliance, Handel’s majesty, Telemann’s humor and the entire Baroque were powered by a basso continuo, literally “continuous bass,” laying down harmonies and a bass line underneath the ensemble just like a contemporary American rhythm section (most of the time even improvising like its descendant). The best of them boot a soloist or band regardless of how they’re labelled:

Opera from this period is often dismissed as “singer’s opera,” but it was also “soloist’s opera.”  Following along with those long chains of notes and cresting phrases is like listening to a saxophonist flexing their chops in a nightclub.  Virtuosity carries its own momentum:

Unlike the sweeping edifices of the Romantic era or the nervous, irregular pulse of so many contemporary pieces, Baroque music (not to mention a lot of early Classical) has rhythm as well as sense of movement.  With Sung’s definition of “swing” in mind, a blog covering both prewar jazz and eighteenth century music begins to seem downright intuitive.

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Domenica con Vivaldi: My Favorite “Season”

Screen shot 2013-03-18 at 9.16.56 PMAntonio Vivaldi (March 4, 1678-July 28, 1741) composed over five hundred concertos, yet Stravinsky joked that Vivaldi actually wrote the same concerto five hundred times. Many of the Venetian composer/violinist’s concertos display similar traits, making them instantly recognizable as the work of the same artist. Yet h
ow each performer (and listener) approaches Vivaldi’s concertos makes all the difference. “Sundays with Vivaldi” will take Il Prete Rosso’s concertos one at a time, and see whether each of these things is in fact like the others.

Violin Concerto in G Minor, “L’Estate (Summer)”
RV 315
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus Eight

Vivaldi’s Opus Eight made quite an impression on audiences, yet the first four concertos, collectively subtitled The Four Seasons and each depicting a titular season in powerful musical terms, continue to be Vivaldi’s most well known creation. The second concerto masterfully transcribes a hot summer day, complete with a torrential downpour to break the heat. More generally it evokes urgency, desperation, and other intense feelings resulting from dire situations beyond inclement weather.

And it all starts with a sigh:

The juxtaposition of desiccated violins, tugging at chromatic reins but too exhausted to travel to any firm resting point, and the soloist, snapping them out of it with rapid-fire bowing, is packed with symbolism but also works as a strictly musical effect. “Summer” in fact works quite well outside of any scene-painting or emotional allusions.

As though seated at a piano, Vivaldi crafts a range of textures from one basic timbre, in this case string sonority. The first movement alone features the strings turning laser-bright, then gruff and finally jagged. Vivaldi goes one step further in the second movement, laying down a craggy floor with just first and second violins underneath the soloist’s graceful steps. With the addition of lower strings, some theatrically placed doom and gloom only reinforces the fragility of this repose:

Of course this moment of peace is eventually shattered (and how!):

By this point even the name “violin concerto” is misleading. The entire band gets to strut, folding in upon itself in beautiful, slightly terrifying contrapuntal splendor and sinking their bows into a lightning fast break that cues the soloist to step it up another notch. Heat and storms are never far behind, but even without any analogies the listener understands that they’re in the midst of something heavy. “Summer” may be this writer’s favorite of the Four Seasons, because it might as well have been titled a thousand other things, or nothing at all.

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Domenica con Vivaldi: Only April and Already Sick of “Spring”

Screen shot 2013-03-18 at 9.16.56 PMAntonio Vivaldi (March 4, 1678-July 28, 1741) composed over five hundred concertos, yet Stravinsky joked that Vivaldi actually wrote the same concerto five hundred times. Many of the Venetian composer/violinist’s concertos display similar traits, making them instantly recognizable as the work of the same artist. Yet h
ow each performer (and listener) approaches Vivaldi’s concertos makes all the difference. “Sundays with Vivaldi” will take Il Prete Rosso’s concertos one at a time, and see whether each of these things is in fact like the others.

Violin Concerto in E, “La Primavera (Spring)”
RV 269
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus Eight

Covering each of Vivaldi’s concertos, eventually this blog had to get to his Opus Eight and its opening work, even if most of the world has been there and done it several times over.

The forty-seven year old violinist/composer/impresario/educator was well known in his native Venice and throughout Europe by the time Opus Eight was published.  Subtitled “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention,” it featured more of the rhythmic, harmonic and technical feats that had secured Vivaldi’s fame, but the first four works in the set were an event unto themselves.  Each one set to a poem written by the composer and named for a different season, they remain extraordinary examples of Vivaldi’s gift for programmatic music.  Yet he couldn’t have possibly known that the first concerto would grant him immortality:

People who love classical music know it. People who hate classical music know it. Between the Mozart effect and Baby’s First Classical Album, many unborn children probably know it. It’s been recorded and performed countless times, with interpretations that would have surprised and even baffled its composer. Movie and television scores keep coming back to it.  For listeners who don’t hear its chirping birds or soft breezes, it still signifies elegance and refinement. Out of hundreds of other concertos, Vivaldi’s “Spring” concerto can seem like his only concerto.

Its popularity is largely due to symbolism rather than sound. Vivaldi has always been known for representational music, but unlike his “Storm at Sea,” “Slumber” and other programmatic works, “Spring” alludes to guaranteed crowd pleasers such as warmth, rebirth and love. Vivaldi paints those sensations with music that’s bright, rhythmic and compact. It’s easy to imagine Beethoven or Brahms channeling spring, but not with Vivaldi’s delivery.

bven512lThat easy flow, combined with Vivaldi’s sense of symmetry and clarity, makes “Spring” as likely to accompany a joyous but peaceful celebration or fancy affair as the season itself.  Its sense of deliberate calm may have been a calculated move by Vivaldi.  “Spring” is the most relaxed of Vivaldi’s four seasons: “Summer” closes with a nasty storm, “Autumn” with a hunt and “Winter” is bookended by ice raining down from above and then cracking underfoot. Aside from a barking dog and some drunken escapades, “Spring” is comparatively drama-free. Given all these associations, it’s no surprise it’s become a perennial favorite.

Unfortunately this bright, airy work has been weighed down by its own popularity. If the issue were just the sheer glut of recordings that continues to grow every year, only classical listeners would be sick of it. Yet chances are anyone who’s been on hold with their HMO or attended a wedding might be a little too familiar with “Spring.” Its hummable themes and trot can seem a little too cozy, eliciting few surprises and maybe sounding too comfortable, even twee (with overly mannered interpretations of the material doing more harm than good). After a few centuries and too many commercials, “Spring” can seem like a satire of itself.  Meanwhile, the notes are still there, even if they’ve been put to service for a thousand other things besides music.

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Which is why hearing just the music might be the freshest approach possible. Rather than scene painting, cultural capital or an antique, maybe it’s time to listen to “Spring” strictly as an aesthetic experience, with the sounds of the music referencing nothing else than the notes on the violinists’ fingerboards. For example, instead of imagining a chirping bird or some Arcadian stereotype, listen to a soloist skimming over the upper register and creating virtuosic lines from the orchestra’s chords:

Even that well-known melody begins to seem ingenious, the repeated notes literally jamming themselves into the audience’s memory.  The central Largo in turn becomes an experiment with string sonority, as the soloist plays within and against the first and second violins’ glaze while a viola punctuates underneath:

The absence of a bass, combined with the viola securing the lowest part, adds a suspended feel to the whole movement. That’s one subjective impression, but it’s a listener-derived impression rather than one ironed out in long in advance.  Sticking to just the notes is also a good way to approach the familiar dance tropes of the third and final movement [at 6:19 in this clip]:

Vivaldi was definitely referencing dance.  Yet what occasion or which dancer is inconsequential.  Dance is music, and an inspiration for thousands of other works by Vivaldi and many other composers.  It’s just pure dance, allowing for pure music, no titles or sonnets needed.

Vivaldi was always known for music that sounds like things, but as Maynard Solomon writes, “we all feel the impulse to remove the river from Smetana’s ‘Moldau,’ the hero from Beethoven’s ‘Eroica‘ or the ‘Jupiter‘ from Mozart’s symphony, so that we may respond openly and without limitation.”  It might be helpful to stop listening to “Spring” and hear the Violin Concerto in E, Concerto One from Opus Eight.

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Keep On Bowin’! Vivaldi at 335

Vivaldi_by_azurecorsairHugely successful even as he was widely criticized in his own lifetime, dying alone and impoverished in a foreign city, his works collecting dust for centuries and still encountering reductionist dismissal even as today’s musicians keep coming back to them: it’s been a hell of a ride for Antonio Vivaldi.

Happy 335th birthday to him, from a fan who’s always ready for more.  Here’s the first movement of the birthday boy’s celebratory Concerto for Violin, Organ and Cello, in all its rhythmic and textural glory:

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