The full title of last night’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) concert at Herbst Theatre was Vivaldi the Teacher: When Reigning and Rising Stars Align; and it offers much to unpack. Antonio Vivaldi may be best known today for the extraordinary number of concertos he composed (not to mention over 40 operas and a comparatively modest body of engaging sacred music); but his “day job” was that of maestro di violino (master of violin) at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, which served as convent, orphanage, and music school. Vivaldi began working there at the age of 25 and remained for about 30 years.
Plaque commemorating Vivaldi’s services as a teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà (photograph by G.dallorto, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Italy license)
Over that period his primary responsibility was to provide the girls with a musical education. (The boys were instructed in trades that would provide employment when they left the orphanage at the age of fifteen.) Thus, almost all of his prodigious output as a composer was created in the service of his commitment as a teacher. Today his legacy is solidly established through that output, while next to nothing is known about any of the orphans subjected to his teaching skills.
This brings us to the “reigning and rising stars” part of the program title. The guest artists for that program were three alumni from the Historical Performance program at the Juilliard School: violinist Alana Youssefian, cellist Keiran Campbell, and oboist David Dickey. Each was paired with a PBO musician, violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, cellist Phoebe Carrai, and oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz, respectively. In other words each “rising” performer was given the opportunity to work shoulder-to-shoulder with a “reigning” one. To this end the program consisted almost entirely of Vivaldi concertos composed for pairs of instruments. Indeed, in addition of concertos for pairs of violins, oboes, and cellos, there was also a “pair of pairs” concerto for two violins and two cellos. Each of these involved a generous “call-and-response” rhetoric in which one soloist (the teacher) would present a passage which would then be repeated by the other (the student), encouraged to add his/her own personal stamp, rather than just mimic the teacher.
The result was a series of performances in which the visual impressions were often as stimulating as the musical ones. One not only listened intently to how these give-and-take exchanges would unfold; one could also observe the physical manifestations of chemistry between teacher and student. Anyone who went into last night’s performance with the assumption that there was cookie-cutter uniformity to Vivaldi’s many concertos was quickly disabused of that presupposition by a convincing case that the music was entirely in the acts of performances, rather than in the marks on paper being interpreted. Furthermore, both Youssefian and Campbell took seats in the full PBO string ensemble for the final work on the program, Francesco Geminiani’s concerto grosso arrangement of the last of the twelve violin sonatas in Arcangelo Corelli’s Opus 5, his set of variations on the “Folia” theme in D minor.
In addition, instead of the usual lecture, last night’s program was preceded by a “Prelude Recital” featuring all three of the Juilliard alumni. The recital presented three short chamber music selections by George Frideric Handel and Georg Philipp Telemann, as well as Vivaldi. Continuo was provided by Hanneke van Proosdij, alternating between harpsichord and organ. As a result, by the end of the evening, most of us on audience side felt we had formed a rather strong acquaintance with our three visitors. Hopefully, I was not the only one wondering what they will next be making of the many benefits of their educational experiences.