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Vivaldi thrives in a chamber music setting

Plaque commemorating Vivaldi at the Ospedale della Pietá
Plaque commemorating Vivaldi at the Ospedale della Pietá
by Giovanni Dall'Orto, from Wikipedia (licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Italy)

Last night at the Century Club of California the Trinity Alps Chamber Players presented a preview event for the fourth season of the Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival entitled Italian Chamber Music. The concert was arranged by the Italian Cultural Institute in conjunction with the Carmel Bach Festival. The ensemble consisted of Trinity Alps Festival Director Ian Scarfe on piano, Lux Brahn on clarinet, violinists Edwin Huizinga (who also performs regularly at the Carmel Festival), Petr Masek, and Tess Varley, violist Ivo Bokulic, cellist Samsun Van Loon, and Andrei Gorbatenko on bass.

The major work on the program was a presentation of the first four concertos from Antonio Vivaldi’s Opus 8 collection, best known as The Four Seasons. Huizinga served as soloist; but, in this chamber music setting, all other parts were taken by a single performer. The result was one of the most transparent accounts of these concertos one could expect to encounter. For those acquainted with the descriptive sonnets accompanying each of the concertos (one for each of the seasons), this approach provided a far more vivid account of Vivaldi’s use of music for “word painting” and sound effects.

Beyond those musical virtues, however, was the very approach to making music that made the listening experience so exciting. While Vivaldi may have written this music for the austere setting of the Ospedale della Pietá (which served as both convent and orphanage), the spirit of last night’s performance came closer to that of the Collegium Musicum of Johann Sebastian Bach and his friends that gathered at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house on Friday evenings to make more music for no reason other than the pleasure of it all. As I have previously suggested, this was a setting for some of the earliest forms of what would come to be called “jamming” among jazz musicians in the twentieth century. Bach could well have played both violin and harpsichord in this setting with the same imaginative energy we would find centuries later in John Coltrane and Bud Powell.

While last night’s performance was true to the score as it had been notated, it was also very much a celebration of this eighteenth-century approach to jamming. One could observe this not only in Huizinga’s energetic commitment (physically as well as musically) but also in the individuality assumed by each of the other parts. One thus had a clearer sense of the give-and-take logic behind the structure of these four concertos; and the enthusiasm of those exchanges spilled off the stage and into the audience.

Scarfe hosted the first half of the program, playing in all three of the selections. As a soloist he played a 1903 nocturne by Ottorino Respighi, an engaging departure from that composer’s preferences for grand orchestral sounds. He was joined by Brahn for an E-flat major fantasy for clarinet and piano that Gioachino Rossini composed in 1829. Finally, the two of them were joined by Masek for a trio that Gian Carlo Menotti completed in 1996.

The result was three pieces of chamber music by composers not usually associated with chamber music. In some respects Rossini seemed most “at home” in the genre, since his composition was probably conceived as salon entertainment, a setting with which he was quite familiar. Menotti’s trio, on the other hand, was delightfully prankish, often in that same comic spirit that he could evoke in some of his opera work. All three of the pieces were brief, providing an excellent “warm up” for the more extended Vivaldi encounter that would follow the intermission.