Reviews

Thinking Outside the Bachs
The Vivaldi Project Presents "C.P.E. Bach and His Dramatic Predecessors
Harrison Russin, The Classical Voice of North Carolina, 2/6/14

At the University of North Carolina's Hill Hall on Thursday, February 6, 2014, the Vivaldi Project gave a thrilling reading of six 17th- and 18th-century works in a concert entitled "C.P.E. Bach and His Dramatic Predecessors" as part of the Mallarmé Chamber PlayersHIP Festival. With guest conductor John Hsu, the small orchestra of twelve musicians gave a convincing argument for the sinfonia and concerto grosso in baroque and early classical music without the "elephant in the room" – J.S. Bach. (I note, however, that Bach's stature as we regard him today is more a result of the 19th-century Bach revival than a continuous stream of Bach adulation dating from his own lifetime.)

Hsu, who taught and conducted at Cornell University for fifty years before retiring to the Research Triangle area, ably conducted a fine group of musicians. Violinist and ensemble co-founder Elizabeth Field said in her pre-concert introduction that this music was never intended to be for anything other than a live event, and Hsu certainly brought this event to life. Simon Rattle noted that conductors only begin to attain musical competence around age 60; if that's true, we can surely delight in Hsu's competence and musical maturity.

From the very opening of the Corelli Concerto Grosso in G Minor, Op.6, No. 8, the orchestra animated their gut strings and engaged and communicated with each other, anticipating the sundry tempo shifts with eye contact. In music that changes speed and mood more frequently than a Meat Loaf song, such communication is vital, and these musicians did so brilliantly. There were many fine musical moments at this concert; suspensions never sound as tangible as when they are played with baroque bows, and the slight ritardando before each final cadence was perfectly placed.

Especially noteworthy was the Pastorale finale of the Corelli Concerto Grosso; the pregnant pauses that ended the piece were ideal, bringing the perfect closure to his music. Hsu also brought a level of dynamic control to music in which loud and soft are often confusingly blurred. The first half of the program was also colored by a Handel Concerto Grosso in E minor, which features a delightful Polonaise dance for its third movement. Hsu, who conducted most of the concert seated, gave a dancing feel to each phrase of the music. His conducting frequently followed the phrase structure rather than a strict bar-by-bar meter; his cello and viol background becomes clear when he throws his arms to the ground to highlight a particularly drawn note.

Stephanie Vial showcased her baroque cello technique in the Vivaldi Concerto for Violoncello in G Major, RV 413. Her delicate solo passages and careful dynamic use brought out the baroque contrasts of Vivaldi's music, and her musical oppositions of the brisk sixteenth-note runs and the slower quarter-note figures would help to convince any Vivaldi naysayer of that composer's genius.

The highlight of the concert was its closing: two sinfonia by Bach's eldest sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. W.F. Bach's Sinfonia in F Major, F. 67, featured some odd plays between meter and modality in its opening, and the orchestra was clearly having fun. This music, written between 1735 and 1740, presented some interesting oddities, at least to ears shaped by modern classical musical vocabulary; one example was the continuously accented leading tone that appeared in the second movement. C.P.E. Bach's Sinfonia in B Minor is part of a set of commissions from Baron Gottfried van Swieten in the 1770s, composed without any restrictions from the Baron; this freedom comes through in the music, which, though written in the traditional Berlin string symphony style, has some wonderful surprises. The push and pull of the dynamics, along with the staggered entries in strange sequences, sounded bright and lively.

This concert had wonderful, weird music; some, like the Concerti Grossi, played into our normal baroque expectations. But pushing the line toward W.F. and C.P.E. Bach highlights the oddities of mid-18th-century music, and how different our musical expectations have become through centuries of being inundated with sonata form and Viennese harmony. This is music from an era whensinfonia did not mean "symphony," with its Mahlerian overtones, and sonata could indicate any of three different practices (church, chamber, or theatrical sonatas). The Vivaldi Project and the HIP Festival have helped to reinsert our sense of wonder and surprise at music that will never sound old.



An Evening of Concertos by Antonio Vivaldi
Barry Salwen, The Classical Voice of North Carolina, 12/2/12

Chamber Music Wilmington continued its season at St. Paul’s church, with a concert devoted entirely to music of Antonio Vivaldi. It was an evening of high-quality music making by The Vivaldi Project, whose members are much in demand in the early-music world and in fact perform a good deal of music besides Vivaldi.

The string instruments used strings made of gut, as in Vivaldi’s time – as opposed to the steel strings now standard. This gives a different tone and character to the sound. The continuo section had a strong presence, being as much as half or more of the ensemble, which varied between a total of seven and eight. The stage picture, and the sound, were enhanced by the presence of an instrument probably unfamiliar to many modern audiences: the theorbo. This is a long-necked bass lute from the Renaissance whose strings stretch well beyond the working length of the player’s arm. It added a deep and wonderfully lush resonance to the continuo.

The program began with the Concerto for 2 Violins and Cello in D minor, Op. 3/11, RV 565. This piece set the tone for the program. The playing had a rhythmic dynamism and lovingly shaped phrasing. Each player performed with apparent passion. What stood out in the phrasing was the beautiful tapering of the lines and at times the nuances of swelling within phrases. Soft sections had a particularly clear, attractive sound. The spiccato sections offered attractive timbral contrast.

The following Concerto for Violin in D minor, Op. 8/7, RV 242, featured energetically phrased solos by Elizabeth Fullard. It illustrates Vivaldi’s remarkably prolific output, being the seventh full concerto in an opus which also includes the famous Four Seasons. It is subtitled Il piacere, and as the name suggests, offered the soloist improvisatory-style sections along with the notated virtuosity.

The third work, Concerto Ripieno in A Major, RV 158, was a concerto without soloists, a type extensively cultivated by Vivaldi. This attractive piece had an especially mellow, reflective second movement.

A standout piece followed. This was the Concerto for Viola D’amore in D minor, RV 394. Allison Edberg played the solo on the viola d’amore with sensitivity and beauty of tone, more than compensating for the somewhat restricted dynamic range of the instrument. Her sound in the largo was lustrous. An especially attractive feature of the piece was the passages in which the soloist was accompanied by a single instrument winding around it with its own independent line. Her cadenza, rather than brilliance, brought a meditative quality.

The following Concerto for Violoncello in G major, RV 413, featured the excellent Stephanie Vial as cello soloist. There was a good deal of virtuosic, energized writing here, and Ms. Vial played it with flair. A nice feature of the first movement was the shifting rhythmic patterns, something often lacking in Vivaldi. This movement also had passages with the soloist accompanied by a single violin, which was a lovely sound. The soloist’s soft phrases were projected beautifully. This was the case in the second movement as well, which had the cello playing with just the continuo, and gave the soloist a showcase for expressive phrasing. The upbeat third movement, like the second, had unisons at the start, here lively as opposed to thoughtful.

The Concerto in C minor for Strings and continuo, RV 118, another ripieno concerto, closed the program with plenty of dynamic rhythms and sequences, as well as a nearly virtuoso passage for the continuo in the last movement.

Every member of this fine chamber-sized ensemble seemed to play with passion. Performing on original instruments contributes substantial beauties and the players are clearly masters of this challenging art. It might be added that the informative and relatively extensive program notes were, like the playing itself, in a passionate style which effectively advocated for the variety and excitement of the music. If the listener did not come away with the sense of uniqueness in each piece which the written descriptions intended to impart, the energy and expression of the performances brought forth a great deal. The audience in the nearly-filled church, attentive throughout, responded with heartfelt appreciation.


The VIvaldi Project
Stephen Brookes, The Washington Post, 6/11/12
 

For the past six years or so, The Vivaldi Project has been on a mission: to explore not only the music of the early baroque period, but also the astonishingly rich musical language, with its own precise grammar of expression, that underlies that music. The intriguing idea has made the ensemble’s concerts, as it showed Sunday at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, into events that forge intriguing ties among composers of the time.

For Sunday night’s concert (part of the Washington Early Music Festival, which runs through the end of the month), the ensemble looked at what lead violinist Elizabeth Field called the “tug of war” between Italian and French composers of the baroque. The French tended to be more restrained, with an emphasis on harmony rather than melody, and the Italians were more emotional and freewheeling.To drive the point home, the group contrasted a quintessentially French work, the Suite from “Thesee” (1675) by Jean-Baptiste Lully, with Arcangelo Corelli’s Sonata in G Op. 3 No. 6. Lully’s music can be hard for modern ears to warm up to; although beautifully made, it’s formal to the point of chilliness. There’s often a mincing, precious quality that’s not to every taste. The Corelli, by contrast, was a vibrant and much earthier piece featuring superb playing by Field with the gifted violinist Allison Edberg, ensemble co-founder Stephanie Vial on cello, Joseph Gascho at the harpsichord and William Simms on theorbo.

No sooner had the Corelli ended, a heart-stopping crack rang out: The neck of Simms’s theorbo (a sort of lute with an extended neck and as many as 20 strings) had snapped. Simms was sidelined, but the group soldiered on with an early Vivaldi sonata and a fascinating trio sonata by Francois Couperin called “L’apothese de Corelli” — a French interpretation of the Italian style.

There were other gems on the program, including a richly textured sonata for four violins by Giovanni Legrenzi, and a fiery little concerto by Vivaldi. But perhaps the most unusual work was the Sonata in C Minor, “Sanguineus und Melancholicus” by C.P.E. Bach, a musical debate between an optimist and a pessimist. Field and Edberg acted out the opposing roles with great charm, and the conversation ended with harmony, hugs and a consensus that the glass is, in fact, half-full. 

Amid baroque art, Vivaldi Project transports listener to Venice in its glory
Cecilia H. Porter, The Washington Post 2/22/11

Sunday's stunning concert at the National Gallery of Art was all about Venice ­ and for
good reason. The Vivaldi Project ensemble saluted the new exhibition in the East
Building, "Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals," with music centered on a city that
blossomed in the Renaissance and baroque periods as a commercial crossroads that
lavished its wealth on arts of all kinds.

Covering music of the 17th and 18th centuries, the program Sunday featured works
shimmering with the colorful luminescence that Canaletto lent his brilliant panoramas of
Venice. With groups such as the Vivaldi Project, the tide is turning from approaching
early music in a careful, overly literal reading of the notes to electrifying improvisation
beyond the fanciful melodies already embedded in the scores. The group advances early­
music performance practice by its finely drawn characterizations of each piece.
The musicians moved from the plaintive laments and playful fugues of a sinfonia by
Alessandro Stradella to a Handel trio sonata and one of Vivaldi's Suonate da Camera a
Tre, Op. 1, combining violinists Elizabeth Field and Allison Guest Edberg and cellist
Stephanie Vial with continuo support by Joseph Gascho on the harpsichord and William
Simms on the theorbo, an antique form of lute.

Pieces by Giovanni Legrenzi were marked by vigorous allegros and mellow adagios, and
the musicians reveled in the dance rhythms of a sonata da camera by Antonio Caldara.
Gascho raced through his witty parody of Handel's and Domenico Scarlatti's keyboard
styles. The final Vivaldi ended the concert in a storm of electrifying improvisation
impelled by a throbbing metrical pulse. Read Full Review

The Vivaldi Project Presented the Vivid Virtuosity of C.P.E. Bach String Writing
William Thomas Walker, The Classical Voice of North Carolina 9/15/10

The Vivaldi Project, a first­rate period instrument ensemble dedicated to presenting 17th
and 18th­century string repertoire, opened its tour of Piedmont NC in Brendle Recital Hall
on the lovely campus of Wake Forest University. The ensemble on this occasion consisted
of three violinists each in the first and second violins, two violists, two cellists, a double
bass, and harpsichord. The conductor was John Hsu . . .

Director Elizabeth Fields, the concertmistress, and assistant director and first cellist
Stephanie Vial spoke from the stage giving brief, germane comments about the ensemble
and the compositions. They explained why The Vivaldi Project was devoting an entire program
to C. P. E. Bach's Sinfonias. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the Austrian ambassador to the
Prussian Court, commissioned these works and told the composer he need make no allowances
for the skills of the orchestra. Bach took as his inspiration the string technical skills of the
soloist parts of Vivaldi's works and applied them to every player! . . .
 
The string playing of The Vivaldi Project musicians was simply breathtaking! Most impressive
was their precise articulation at the fastest speeds, along with such technical challenges as
"rapid scales, arpeggios, and multiple stops." Each string section played exactly together as one
player no matter how abrupt the change in dynamics or tempo. This group cannot be booked to
return to our concert venues too soon. Read Full Review

Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun 6/3/08

On Sunday evening, a sizable crowd welcomed the Vivaldi Project, a D.C.­based, period
instrument ensemble, to the Baltimore Basilica for a concert presented by An die Musik and
the Basilica's Historic Trust. The tight ensemble delivered a program of baroque fare rich in
solo opportunities for founding concertmaster Elizabeth Field, a poised and stylish player.
The reverberant acoustics in the exquisitely renovated church obscured many a detail of the
refined counterpoint flowing through concertos by Vivaldi, Corelli and Scarlatti. But the
mushy sound could not defeat the buoyant spirit, expressive warmth and technical fluency of
the playing.


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