Arts & Events

Vivaldi the Teacher: A Philharmonia Baroque Concert

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 16, 2018 - 10:50:00 AM

One only had to listen well to Sunday’s concert, November 11, at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church to understand why Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra entitled its series of concerts celebrating Antonio Vivaldi’s music “Vivaldi the Teacher.” In his insistence on giving a distinct musical voice to a soloist or soloists over against an instrumental tutti, Vivaldi paved the way for the development of the concerto. In this respect, and in many others, Vivaldi was a key figure in the transition from late Baroque to early Classical style.  

As if to highlight the significance of Vivaldi ((1678-1741), Philharmonia Baroque’s concert began with a piece not by Vivaldi but by his predecessor Arcangelo Corelli. A generation older than Vivaldi, Corelli (1653-1713) was the first important composer of concertos. Performed here was Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Op.6, No. 7 in D Major. As played by Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra on period instruments, Corelli’s model of a concerto was evident: a solo group of instruments alternated with the larger instrumental ensemble or tutti. Corelli also added shadings of fast and slow, as well as soft (piano) and loud (forte) to give his concertos dynamic contrasts. All well and good; but there was little that stood out in Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 7 or that made the listener perk up the ears and pay close attention to exciting musical developments.  

However, this is exactly what happened as soon as the program shifted focus to Vivaldi. In Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in C Major, RV 507, the listener was struck immediately by the equal treatment accorded the two violin soloists. Here the soloists, Elizabeth Blumenstock and Alana Youssefian, traded passages on an equal basis, with the responding soloist taking an assertive role in developing ideas first presented by the lead violinist. In this regard, the fluency of interplay between the veteran Elizabeth Blumenstock and the young Alana Youssefian was a joy to hear. After a lively opening Allegro, the poignant Largo featured a lilting siciliana, followed by a final Allegro that offered Blumenstock and Youssefian exciting passagework and stratospheric leaps.  

Next on the program was Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Oboes in D minor, RV 535. As teacher, composer, and conductor at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà, Vivaldi was kept busy providing new music for the many public concerts offered by the Pietà’s young nuns. Vivaldi wrote twenty concertos for solo oboe in addition to concertos for two and three oboes. For this item on Sunday’s program, the oboe soloists were Gonzalo X. Ruiz and David Dickey. The piece opens with a dialogue between the two soloists, gently accompanied by cello and bass. Here the two soloists are not quite equals, as the second oboist always plays below the first oboist. However, Ruiz and Dickey were especially lovely to hear in the gentle Largo.  

To close out the first half of this concert, Philharmonia Baroque performed Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins and Two Violoncellos in G Major, RV 575. In this work the violin soloists were Elizabeth Blumenstock and Alana Youssefian, and the violoncello soloists were Phoebe Carral and Keiran Campbell. As Bruce Lamott’s program notes indicate, “this concerto is more accurately a contest between two duos, each locked in parallel thirds.” The violins form one duo, the violoncellos form the other duo; and these two groups trade ideas back and forth in lockstep. It was exciting to hear the Blumenstock-Youssefian violin duo offer tantalizing musical figures for the Carral-Campbell violoncello duo to take up and counter. 

After intermission, conductor Nicholas McGegan opened the concert’s second half with Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violoncellos in G minor, RV 531. Once again the violoncello soloists were Phoebe Carral and Keiran Campbell. The two soloists are equals here, each opening the piece with brilliant passagework. Heard in both the first and final movements are what the Germans termed Schwärmer (“swarmers”) due to the buzzing effect notable, for example, in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, where the buzzing of bees is clearly evoked. The two violoncello soloists were joined in the Largo by the continuo cello, here played by William Skeen.  

Next came Vivaldi’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in B-flat Major, RV 548. The soloists were David Dickey on oboe and Alana Youssefian on violin. In the opening movement, Dickey’s oboe sang above Youssefian’s rapid undulations on violin; and in the plaintive Largo the oboe intones a siciliana over the violin’s rhythmic filigree across all four strings. For the lively finale, Dickey and Youssefian harmonized in parallel thirds to bring this work to a joyful close. Following this work was Vivaldi’s Andante from his Concerto for Violin in B-flat Major, RV 372a, a work designated “per Chiareta” by Vivaldi for one of his favorite pupils. As played here by violinist Alana Youssefian this was indeed the highlight of the concert, for she rose to the occasion by performing ever more difficult variations with brilliant aplomb. Youssefian’s tone remained bright throughout the complexities and shone eloquently in the rapid oscillations of her closing bariolage. 

Just as the concert opened with Corelli the concert closed with a work by Corelli, this time his Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D minor, nicknamed “La Follia,” as transformed by Corelli’s pupil Francesco Geminiani (1687-17620, who reworked his master’s sonatas for violin and harpsichord by dividing the solo violin part between two players and expanding the continuo. Here the violin solo was performed by concertmaster Carla Moore and the cello solo was performed by William Skeen, with David Tayler accompanying on theorbo and Hanneke van Proosdij on harpsichord. Geminiani’s talent was evident in the way he made Corelli’s music conform to the model established by Antonio Vivaldi that held sway throughout the 18th century. 

In lieu of a pre-concert talk, Philharmonia Baroque presented a Prelude Recital featuring recent graduates of the Juilliard School: violinist Alana Youssefian, oboist David Dickey, and violoncellist Keiran Campbell, accompanied by Hanneke van Proosdij on harpsichord. This ensemble performed Handel’s Trio Sonata in B-flat Major, Vivaldi’s Sonata for Violin, Violoncello and Continuo in C minor, RV 83, and Telemann’s Trio for Violin, Oboe and Continuo in G minor.