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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Concert Review: Vivaldi Through a Modern Glass

Robert McDuffie
Photo by Christian Steiner
On Wednesday night, violinist Robert McDuffie and the Venice Baroque Orchestra brought their current tour to Carnegie Hall. The program explores the connection between Vivaldi's Four Seasons, arguably the most famous set of violin concertos ever written, and the Violin Concerto No. 2, a new work by minimalist Philip Glass.

The Four Seasons had an energetic, rustic style, choosing a very fast tempo and playing through his cadenza passages with precise, rapid-fire delivery. "Summer" featured slower, more languid melodies and an impressive thunderstorm from the cellists. The familar "Autumn"was graceful and more elegant, with the small orchestra providing able accompaniment. "Winter," which has the toughest rhythmic passages and some of the most difficult cadenzas in Vivaldi's work, provided a fitting climax to the cycle.

This new concerto, subtitled The American Four Seasons is an unusual Philip Glass composition. The shortened forms allow the New York based composer to experiment with neo-classical textures, shot through with echoes of Vivaldi's own style.

Driving, repeated notes (a hallmark of this composer's style) keep the engine moving and form a strong foundation for the soloist. The result is a series of concise movements with welcome pauses in between. Unlike Vivaldi's works, Glass chooses to let the listener figure out which season belongs to which concerto. (This writer guesses: 1) Winter, 2) Spring, 3) Summer, 4) Fall.)

Glass alternates the movements for orchestra with a series of soliloquoy passages for the violin, instead of the more conventional cadenzas. Mr. McDuffie played the articulated phrases with skill and fire, drawing beautiful sounds from his vintage instrument. As the movements played and the months passed, the orchestra built up momentum. In the final pages, the violinist led the band through racing glissando chords and swift, descending arpeggios, to thrilling effect.

Mr. McDuffie played the solo violin parts standing up, which is not unusual. However, the violinists and violists in his ensemble played standing up as well, which changed the balance of the sound somewhat and allowed more eye-contact interaction between the soloist and his fellow string players. (The lower strings, keyboard, and theorbo remained seated.)

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