Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: 'The Seasons Project'

Robert McDuffie, violin
Venice Baroque Orchestra
Nov. 15, University of Richmond

In recent years, instrumentalists inclined toward historically informed performance (HIP for short) of baroque music have produced a less thin, more robust sound, especially from fiddles, playing with greater expression, dynamism and spontaneity. These HIPsters haven’t discarded the rules on "authentic" performance practice devised in the 1960s and ’70s, but they have loosened some of the old constraints. They more freely employ vibrato, especially at slower tempos, and have become more flexible in phrasing and pacing, more attentive to emotional affect and representational effect, and altogether more vivid in their music-making.

Those tendencies came across thrillingly as violinist Robert McDuffie joined the period-instruments Venice Baroque Orchestra in an energized, expressively sizzling reading of Vivaldi’s "The Four Seasons." Their concert at the University of Richmond came in the final week of a month-long, 30-city tour of "The Seasons Project," in which the Vivaldi is paired with Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2, subtitled "The American Four Seasons."

Vivaldi’s set of four violin concertos is among the most familiar of baroque works; frequent performances and airings of recordings have conditioned many listeners to hear the set, especially in its opening "Spring" Concerto, as decorous background music. That crowd must have gotten quite a shock hearing McDuffie and the Venetians pounce on accents, shift abruptly from loudness to quiet, play up representational and evocative sections (especially stormy ones) and paint with every tone color that fiddles can produce.

Their high energy, and the way they pushed against the limits of technique and expression, recalled the musicianship of "hot jazz" bands of the 1920s or the more intense bebop and post-bop jazz players. That jazz vibe was most pronounced in the interplay of McDuffie, cellist Daniele Bovo and lutenist Ivano Zanenghi.

The "hot baroque" of the Vivaldi didn't cool much in the Glass concerto, and that proved to be almost as stiff a jolt to some sensibilities.

Glass’ minimalist style – he prefers the description "music with repetitive structures" – tends to lock listeners onto one wavelength for a long time, sending some into a meditative or trance-like state, giving others a case of tedium-induced heebie-jeebies. This piece is characteristically "steady state" in rhythm and structure, but quite varied in dynamics, colors and sound textures – more eventful, at times even surprising, than one might expect from this composer.

Written for McDuffie and introduced last year, "The American Four Seasons" is in four movements; the season of each is left to the imagination. Glass writes that he and McDuffie hear different seasons in different places; he notes that "the mathematical possibilities, or permutations, of the puzzle are in the order of 24." For what it’s worth, I thought I heard
fall-winter-spring-summer, and thought I was experiencing the seasons in an urban setting, mostly in an overcast twilight or at night. (Vivaldi, by contrast, made his music mostly in daylight.)

The movements of the Glass concerto are connected by

solo-violin miniatures or detached cadenzas that echo the baroque (Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas sound to be the model). The orchestral writing is by no means quasi-baroque – some of it verges on the romantic – but it unexpectedly complements the style of the solos, in a kind of call-and-response between the early 18th and early 21st centuries.

McDuffie and the orchestra delivered an intensely concentrated, surging and nervy performance of the Glass, playing up the music’s cinematic colors and atmospherics, vividly upshifting as its energy levels accumulated.

The unbilled, easily overlooked co-star of the show was Camp Concert Hall. When UR converted the old Camp Theater into a music room in the construction of its Modlin Arts Center, the architects consulted members of the Shanghai Quartet (then in residence at the university) on acoustics. The result was a space that airs string sound with great presence, uncommon clarity and warm resonance; the acoustics and sound perspective are especially kind to period instruments. The room contributed almost as much as the musicians to the vividness and visceral impact of these performances.