Avi Avital and Jory Vinikour team up for a engaging if unorthodox 'Four Seasons'
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's mini-Baroque festival (see my preview for details) concludes this weekend with a continuing emphasis on the works of Antonio Vivaldi. Joining Vivaldi this weekend, though, are his fellow Venetian Alessandro Marcello and a younger German guy named J.S. Bach. You might have heard of him.
The concert Friday morning--part of the coffee concert series with doughnuts courtesy of Krispy Kreme--got off to an appropriately caffeinated start with a lively performance of the overture to Vivaldi's 1734 opera L'Olimipade. Directed from the harpsichord by this week's guest conductor, Chicago-born harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, the reading was appealingly bright and graceful, with pristine playing by the small complement of SLSO strings. Mr. Vinikour was kept quite busy, rapidly switching from the keyboard to artfully shape phrases for the musicians, but it all worked very well.
Mr. Vinikour next took the solo spot in a last minute program change, performing Bach's Italian Concerto for solo harpsichord. Composed in an ornamental style "after the Italian taste" (as Bach described it), the work uses the upper, softer manual (keyboard) of the harpsichord for what would the solo material in a full concerto with the lower and louder manual used to represent the tutti (orchestral) sections. It is, as Mr. Vinikour pointed out in spoken commentary prior to his performance, one of the few instances in which Bach actually provides dynamic markings in his music.
The dynamic contrasts sounded a little less marked than they might have been Friday morning, probably because his instrument was lightly amplified to compensate for the fact that harpsichords were never meant to fill spaces as large as Powell Hall. Even so, it was an elegant bit of work, with some particularly sensitive playing in the Andante second movement, and Mr. Vinikour's technique was impressive throughout.
The first half of the morning's festivities concluded with another outstanding solo performance, this time from Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks in the D minor concerto by Marcello. Although Marcello was not an operatic composer, his concerto nevertheless has a kind of dramatic sensibility, as Benjamin Pesetsky points out in his program notes. Ms. Dirks's performance brought out that theatricality quite effectively, especially in the melancholy second movement, and she handled the virtuoso turns of the Presto finale with ease. Although focused strongly on her sheet music, she nevertheless communicated well with both Mr. Vinikour and her fellow musicians. It's good to see members of the band in the spotlight, especially when they acquit themselves this well.
The second half of the concert was devoted to an intriguing example of old wine in a new bottle: Vivaldi's popular The Four Seasons with the solo part played on mandolin by the Israeli virtuoso Avi Avital.
The substitution makes some sense, in that the violin and the mandolin share the same range and tuning, but the two instruments differ very strongly otherwise. The violin is capable of a wider dynamic range and can produce much more sonic variety. The mandolin can produce the same notes, but it can't necessarily produce the same musical effect.
To my ears, the substitution worked best in the dance-inspired movements, like the Allegro [Danza pastorale] that concludes "Spring" or the opening Allegro of "Autumn." Moments that called for a more singing tone, like the Largo second movement of "Winter," felt much less effective. And, of course, the mandolin's softer voice meant that many notes simply couldn't be heard, despite the fact it was miked. If you listen to the broadcast of this concert Saturday night, though, that issue will likely be resolved in the mixing booth.
Those misgivings aside, this was still a very fine Four Seasons, largely thanks to Mr. Avital's remarkable musicianship. His technique was frankly stunning and it was a joy to see how engaged he was with both the orchestra and with Mr. Vinikour, who once again conducted from the keyboard. He was always connected to the emotion in the music, whether directing a wistful serenade to the violins or practically leaping from his chair during the closing thunderstorm of "Summer."
This isn't going to eclipse the last SLSO Four Seasons I saw (Ward Stare and Jennifer Koh back in 2011, for the record) by any means, but it was certainly entertaining and appealing. I'm glad I saw it, and I recommend you do the same, especially in light of the high quality of the program as a whole.
There are two more performances of this program, Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, December 9 and 10, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. After that, the SLSO performs a series of holiday concerts, with the regular season resuming on January 12th.