Friday, May 19, 2017

NCCO Bubbles Over with the Sheer Joy of Making Music

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) continued its 25th Anniversary Festival with the second of the three concerts it prepared for this week. The title of this concert was Farewell to Nadja, and it featured solo work by Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg for the entire evening. The program consisted of only two compositions. The first half was devoted to the first four concertos published in Antonio Vivaldi’s Opus 8 collection of twelve entitled Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (the contest between harmony and invention), best known by their own collective title, The Four Seasons. The intermission was then followed by The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, Leonid Desyatnikov’s arrangement of four pieces that Astor Piazzolla composed for his tango quintet, rearranged as a suite for violin and string orchestra with an unmistakable nod to Vivaldi.

The Four Seasons was a major beneficiary of a revival of interest in Baroque music that built up mass appeal in the classical market at the same time that the Beatles were dominating the pop market. It is therefore easily forgotten that Vivaldi was less interested in mass audience approval and more dedicated to the training of young musicians. As a violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, he turned those under the care of that institution into a prolific community of music-makers, frequently leading the way with his own prodigious skills at the violin. Those who have reduced music to the triviality of a “soundtrack for daily life” are blissfully ignorant of the extent to which an audience of listeners was secondary (if not tertiary) to mastering the talent of playing one’s own instrument as part of an ensemble of like-minded music lovers.

The latter priority was clearly dominant last night, and the results were nothing short of exuberantly joyous. Salerno-Sonnenberg may have been the principal soloist (as Vivaldi may well have been at the Ospedale); but there were any number of supporting solo passages, primarily involving other violins and cello. Indeed, cellist Robin Bonnell shared continuo duties with harpsichordist Katherine Heater; and, for some of the more subdued passages, took over the continuo of a soloist. However, the prevailing spirit of the evening was one of friends gathered together to jam; and, while solos played a major part in the program, it was the joy of the collective that mattered most. If, on the eve of her departure, Salerno-Sonnenberg wanted us to remember her in the best light possible, she could not have selected a better offering to reinforce our memories.

That spirit of the joyous music-making ensemble then spilled over into the second half of the evening. While Piazzolla composed the four pieces he collected under the title Estaciones Porteñas to represent the four seasons in Buenos Aires, he wrote them separately between 1965 and 1970 and never intended that they be played as a group. For that matter they were written for the quintet in which he played bandoneon, joined by a violinist doubling on viola, a pianist, a guitarist, and a bassist. This group played the club scene, and Vivaldi was probably the last thing on the minds of either the music-makers or the listeners.

On the other hand Desyatnikov probably appreciated the parallel thoughts about acts of music-making shared by Vivaldi and Piazzolla. One can thus approach the arrangements he prepared, first performed by Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltic, in terms of that spirit of shared-music making. That was exactly how NCCO presented their execution of Desyatnikov’s results. The historical period of music-making may have changed; but the spirit has remained alive and thriving. Furthermore Desyatnikov was not shy about mashing explicit retrospection into his arrangements. If Vivaldi was the last thing on Piazzolla’s mind, he makes several “guest appearances” in Desyatnikov’s score (along with an only slightly encrypted nod to Johann Pachelbel’s notorious you-know-what).

The overall result thus amounted to music-making at its finest; and, no surprise, that turned out to be music-making at its most enjoyable.

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