New York critics call it “scruffy-elegant” (The New Yorker) and its offerings “fresh, zesty” (The New York Times).
That sounds like a trendy new bistro in Soho, but it’s actually the Venice Baroque Orchestra, which brings its “vivid, nearly reckless performances” (The Washington Post) and “sheer delight in virtuosity” (The New York Times) to Boulder next Thursday.
That’s extravagant praise for a group playing music more than 300 years old, but the critics didn’t stop there. National Public Radio called Venice Baroque “one of the world’s most adventurous and dramatic period-instrument ensembles,” and the The Washington Post described the group as “tearing the powdered wig off this music once and for all.”
For their Boulder concert, Venice Baroque will be joined by cellist Mario Brunello to “tear the powdered wig off ” cello concertos by Vivaldi, a Venetian and a specialty of Venice Baroque; and Boccherini, a cellist who worked most of his life in Spain but left behind a great legacy of chamber and orchestral music for the cello.
Alessandra di Vincenzo, one of the founding members of the orchestra, points out the link between Vivaldi, one of the best-known composers of the Baroque period, and the more obscure Boccherini. “Vivaldi wrote almost the first cello concertos,” she says. “Vivaldi’s cello concertos are very important for the development and the technique of the instrument.”
From there it is an easy step to Boccherini, who worked a little later than Vivaldi and took the style of the concerto into the early Classical era. One of the great instrumental virtuosos of his day, he wrote 19 cello concertos and more than 100 string quintets with two cellos, which remain his most popular works.
“This is the meaning of this concert,” di Vincenzo says: “The first expression of the cello as a solo instrument, [which] you can find in the Vivaldi concertos, and then the apotheosis of the cello in Boccherini.”
Following an overture to the opera Bajazet, the first and Vivaldi half of the concert will feature two concertos for solo cello and one for two cellos. The Boccherini half will offer a sonata and a concerto for cello, and conclude with one of the quintets for two violins, viola and two cellos, which portrays nocturnal serenades “from the Streets of Madrid” and features an added percussion part.
Venice Baroque’s success with Vivaldi reflects a remarkable turnaround for a composer once considered routine at best. Played in the rigid, mechanical way that used to be preferred for Baroque music, Vivaldi became a purveyor of “sewing machine music,” all of it clicking along and sounding more or less the same. But played with zest and virtuosity, as the critics note, with energy, brilliance and stressing the individuality of each concerto, his music becomes — yes — vivid, fresh and dramatic.
Di Vicenzo has an idea why Venice Baroque has led this flowering of Vivaldi’s music.
“Vivaldi’s music is our music,” she says. “We are Venetians, so it is our [musical] language, and maybe we know how to read it.
“We think that the environment where music was born or was written, where a musician lives, is very important to understand that kind of music. Most Venice Baroque Orchestra members grew up in Venice and studied in Venice, many of us live in Venice.
“Venice is a special city. It’s a city on the water, on the sea, and this helps you maybe to understand the lightness of Venetian music, the colors that are in Venetian music. The music is very lively and at the same time light — light as water.
“In Vivaldi you can find bolder colors, too. We like very much to compare in particular Vivaldi’s music to painting. You need just to show the colors, so we try to paint it.”
In the past the orchestra has been known to travel with their own homegrown food from Italy. Perhaps Venetian food contributes to the understanding of Vivaldi as much as the light of Venice? Di Vicenzo laughs.
“Some time in the past we brought some pasta,” she admits. “Italian people need to eat, sometimes, pasta.
“One person brings with him coffee, he brings coffee and the [espresso] machine. Drink and food, it is important, but we like American food, really.”
Finally, there is one thing that di Vicenzo wants the audience to know, above all else.
“We enjoy ourselves when we play together,” she says. “Maybe it’s because we are friends for many years, and so many of us grew up together. The audience will see the joy of making music together.
“I think music is one of the most beautiful things in the world. And Vivaldi’s music is really joy.”