Symphony Preview: Vivaldi's wild ride
This weekend (December 1 and 2) and next (December 8--10) the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is giving us a mini Baroque festival with the emphasis on the music of one of the most prolific composers of the period, Antonio Vivaldi (1678--1741). He was a guy whose life and reputation had enough ups and downs to rival some roller-coasters.
It started the day he was born. Atypically for the time, he was baptized immediately after his birth in the family home in Venice. It's not entirely clear why--the earthquake that struck the city that day is one explanation, as is the possibility that he was a sickly newborn and not expected to survive--but in any case the official church baptism would wait for two months.
The young Vivaldi was a frail child, possibly suffering from asthma, but he nevertheless proved to be an adept violinist early in life. He joined the priesthood as a teenager and by the age of 25 was appointed maestro di violino (violin master) at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy), a girls' orphanage in Venice. He would remain there for the next three decades, cranking out the vast majority of his huge output, including around 500 concertos for various combinations of instruments.
Judging from the difficulty of many of those pieces, girls at the Ospedale were pretty respectable musicians. Here's the French politician and writer Charles de Brosses enthusing about them, cited in an article by Hugo Ticciati at The Guardian: "There is nothing so charming as to see a young and pretty nun in her white robe, with a sprig of pomegranate blossoms over her ear, leading the orchestra and beating time with all the grace and precision imaginable." Jean-Jacques Rousseau, no less, described the music he heard there as "voluptuous and affecting." Vivaldi's skill at the violin was much admired as well.
Even so, Vivaldi's relationship with the board of directors as the Ospedale was apparently rocky. His contract came up for renewal every year and the vote was often close. They actually failed to renew it in 1709, but two years later, seeing the error of their ways, hired him again. This time the vote was unanimous.
Over the years, Vivaldi's fame spread to the major European music capitals, including Paris, Prague, and Vienna. But towards the end of his life his compositions were seen as unfashionable and dated. He wound up dying in poverty in Vienna. Interest in his work faded, and copies of his music were hard to come by. "For nearly 200 years," writes Peter Gutmann at classicalnotes.net, "Vivaldi was a historical footnote, although a somewhat influential one...His only lasting recognition came from the fervent admiration of Bach, who modeled his own concerto style after Vivaldi's and adapted for keyboard nine Vivaldi violin concerti (even though Bach devotees tended to disparage the source)."
That began to change in the early 20th century when his cause was taken up by, among others, the composer Alfredo Casella and the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini. These days, works like the Gloria for chorus and orchestra (which we'll hear this weekend) and The Four Seasons (next weekend) are concert standards.
This weekend's concerts offer a real feast for Vivaldi fans. In addition to the Gloria, there are three concertos, four opera arias (he claimed that he wrote over 90 operas, although only 46 survive), and a number from a cantata written as a commission for the marriage of Louis XV of France. René Spencer Saller offers detailed descriptions of all of them in her program notes, so I won't try to duplicate that here. Instead I'll just note that the soloists for all the concerti are members of the SLSO, which doesn't happen often enough, in my view.
Conducting all this will be the wonderfully energetic Nicholas McGegan, who invariably lights up a concert stage with his enthusiasm. When I saw him bound out to the podium for a program of Baroque favorites back in 2013, I marveled at how his face lit up with a cherubic smile. His body language was saying: "this is going to be FUN!" That kind of spirit is as infectious as the cold I'm currently trying to shake.
"Vivaldi," Igor Stravinsky once declared, "is greatly overrated--a dull fellow who could compose the same form so many times over." I beg to differ. After this weekend, I expect you will as well.
The Essentials: Nicholas McGegan conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in an all-Vivaldi program, featuring Vivaldi's Gloria, Friday and Saturday, December 1 and 2, at 8 pm. The performance takes place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.