Last night in Herbst Theatre, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) was led (rather than “conducted,” as I observed in my preview piece) by violinist Rachel Podger. She prepared a program consisting entirely of concertos, all by Italian composers and covering the period from the late seventeenth century into the eighteenth. With the exception of Hanneke van Proosdij, alternating continuo work between organ and harpsichord, the ensemble consisted entirely of string players, all bowing except for David Tayler on theorbo.
After beginning with a concerto grosso by Arcangelo Corelli (Opus 6, Number 1 in D major), the earliest-born composer on the program, the concert consisted of five concertos for one, two, or four violins. The soloists for the Corelli were violinists Podger and Katherine Kyme, along with cellist Phoebe Carrai. The violin concertos were by Antonio Vivaldi (Opus 9, Number 6 in A major for single violin and Opus 3, Number 5 in A major for two violins), Giovanni Mossi (Opus 4, Number 12 in G minor for four violins), Pietro Locatelli (Opus 4, Number 12 in F major for four violins), and “authenticated” Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (single violin in B-flat major). The remaining two violin soloists were Elizabeth Blumenstock and Carla Moore. All violinists and violists in the ensemble performed standing.
In his pre-concert lecture music historian John Prescott reminded his audience that all of the composers on the program were, themselves, skilled violinists. He also spoke at some length about the rise of the violin as a virtuoso instrument, going so far as to suggest that Niccolò Paganini was basically continuing a solid tradition of Italian violin playing that could be traced back to the early eighteenth century. Indeed, the technical demands that Locatelli imposed on his four-violin concerto (which concluded the program) may well have set the bar for skill at a level that Paganini was then determined to surpass.
However, as a lover of jazz always on the alert for origins of jazz practices in early music, I would have to say that personally I was most taken with the Vivaldi two-violin concerto. During last summer’s American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy, I suggested that those origins could be pushed back to the sixteenth century, where Purcell’s divisions on a ground bass for multiple virtuoso performers could be likened to the jazz exchange of elaborate solo riffs known as “trading fours.” That same practice of exchanging virtuoso riffs is just as evident in that Vivaldi concerto, where the exchange took place between Podger and Blumenstock with all the verve of an exchange between John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. Note, also, that a similar dynamic can be found in the concertos for multiple violins by Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was so fond of Vivaldi’s that he rearranged many of his concertos for keyboard performance on harpsichord or organ; so one can probably make a case that Vivaldi’s “jazzy” practices rubbed off on Bach.
Podger had no trouble establishing a chemistry with the PBO musicians to serve as an effective leader. Her own playing reflected an infectiously cheerful spirit, as evident in her body language and facial expressions as in her bowing and fingering. To again cite the later practices of Bach, this was a friendly gathering of colleagues all assembled for the joy of making music. Those of us on audience side were merely eavesdropping on an intimate occasion. Fortunately, the joy of that occasion had no trouble spilling off the edge of the Herbst stage and into the audience space. Podger even decided to send us all on our way in a good mood by offering one of Vivaldi’s more heavenly Largo movements as an encore.