Last night in Herbst Theatre, violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock led the members of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in the second program of the group’s 37th season. She prepared a program entitled Vivaldi in Venice. Since only one composition by Antonio Vivaldi was performed, the evening had much more to do with musical life in Venice during Vivaldi’s lifetime than with that one composer.
Of the eight composers whose music was performed, only three were actually Venetians: Vivaldi, Tomaso Albinoni, and Giuseppe Tartini. Four of them were visitors: Pietro Locatelli, Francesco Maria Veracini, George Frideric Handel, and Johann Georg Pisendel, who studied with Vivaldi while in Venice. The evening concluded with three selected instrumental movements from the opera Le carnaval de Venise by the Parisian André Campra, who does not appear to have left France over the course of his long and prosperous life.
People still tend to haul out the old joke that Vivaldi wrote the same violin concerto 230 times; and, from a structural point of view, one might be forgiven for suggesting that there was a formulaic nature to the pieces performed last night. That’s a bit like saying there is something formulaic to the vast number of songs written by Cole Porter. It is important to remember that, during the period that bridges the seventeenth century to the eighteenth, music was primarily about the art and craft of engaging performance. Sheets of paper filled with notation were there to give the performer a point of departure; but the music itself had to do with how a performer could put a personal stamp on that notation, regardless of who put the marks on the paper in the first place.
What made last night so stimulating was not the familiarity of any of the pieces being played or even a prevailing sense of family resemblance. Rather it was Blumenstock’s personal qualities as a performer par excellence. She has an approach to playing the violin that can make even the most routine phrase sound interesting; and, when that phrase repeats, no matter how many times, she knows how to unfold an overall structure that endows each iteration with its own source of interest. Those who attended her pre-concert talk discovered that those skills are not limited to music. She could recite poetry with the same performance qualities that she brings to her violin work.
Much of this, of course, derives from her solid command of technique. However, that skill set is consistently reinforced by an equally solid command of rhetorical skills. It is through rhetoric that she can make even the most familiar passages sound fresh and alive (and she could do that with excerpts from poetry as effectively as she could with passages of music). Even across the scope of the full program of eight composers, she always knew how to pull unexpected rabbits out of her hat. The result was a generous supply of music (much of which may well have been unfamiliar to most of the audience) that consistently radiated with a spontaneity that kept the attentive listener on the edge of his/her seat.
Eighteenth-century Venice may never have had it so good.