Hearing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the First Time, Again

On Saturday, March 16, 2013, the New Trinity Baroque Orchestra performed an all-Vivaldi string concerto concert at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.

First up was all four concertos in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. This performance was astonishingly good. I used the word “stupefying” to describe it to a friend. The audience was ecstatic — embarrassingly over-enthusiastic— and cheered riotously at the end of each of the four concertos.

As good as it was, I don’t intend to write a review of the performance, but more to write the thoughts that it evoked about why I love Baroque music in historically-informed performance.

All of us who like this music have heard old music from bygone eras played on modern instruments by a large orchestra of players focusing on modern performance techniques. That’s certainly how I heard Vivaldi’s Four Seasons the first several times I heard it. New Trinity Baroque’s performance was the first time I had heard all four Seasons concertos performed in the same program by an early music chamber orchestra, and it was a revelation. It was truly like hearing it for the first time, as if all the previous recordings or performances I had heard merely hinted at what the music was all about. The husband of a friend of mine in the audience said, “That’s the first time I’ve heard the Four Seasons really interpreted, as opposed to just played.” This experience is common to all early music chamber groups if they are any good.

It’s quite amazing that New Trinity’s small chamber ensemble — only three violins, one viola, one cello, one bass, harpsichord and chittarone, and of course with no amplification of any sort, in a small church, in front of an audience of 90 people could, well, rock that hard. Hey, I grew up on hard rock music and Rolling Stone magazine. I made a colleague chuckle when I described this performance of New Trinity’s by saying “the entire ensemble just killed.” That’s the sort of language most in my generation would reserve for the stand-up comedy of Eddie Murphy or a rock concert by Prince. But I must be honest in saying that from my point of view, that’s the best way I can explain a concert of classical music played that effectively. I went on to describe this New Trinity Baroque concert by saying, “stupefying virtuosity, carefully rehearsed and meticulously executed, yet full of emotion and passion.”

One of the things that New Trinity Baroque reminded me of is that Vivaldi wrote some astonishingly evocative programmatic music, or tone poems, with The Four Seasons. Symphonie Phantastique? La Mer? Forget about it. Maybe Scheherazade is in Vivaldi’s league.

Most of the effects of what Vivaldi created, in my opinion, get lost when you hear them played by a “modern” orchestra. Here is why.

Early music takes some getting used to, for an audience comfortable with “modern” orchestras that play modern instruments. The differences are particularly stark with the string instruments.

The group I work with, the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, some years ago suffered a bad review of an otherwise okay concert written by an inexperienced, practically clueless music reviewer. She kept using the word “sour” to describe the strings’ sound, and implied that the instruments were never in tune anywhere in the concert. What she didn’t realize was that the instruments were perfectly in tune, and so was the music they were playing: the problem is that she was used to hearing a “modern” string orchestra where the players all use modern steel-stringed instruments and use a great deal of vibrato on all the notes they play. That vibrato, the rapid, small fluctuations in pitch around each central note, which is a characteristic of string playing in the last 125 years, makes all the pitches and intervals “blurry”, and smooths out and sweetens the sound. But this is not the sound that Bach and Vivaldi had at their disposal, so they didn’t write music for these kinds of timbres.

When Baroque music specialists play strings, it is on instruments with strings of sheep gut, not steel, and they use very little if any vibrato. They orient the intonation of the pitches and intervals in their playing decisively toward pure intervals, what we call meantone tuning, or just intonation, and not to the one-size-fits-all compromises of equal-tempered tuning used by the modern piano and guitar. In the modern era’s equal-tempered tuning, the intervals of major and minor thirds in a chord are wide of the mark and cause audible “beating” of clashing overtones. They are all quite out-of-tune compared to the pure intervals you can achieve on the fingerboard of the violin, viola, cello and bass, and in the human voice. The player with “modern” technique adds a generous dollop of vibrato to blur the distinctions in intervals even more.

With a Baroque string ensemble, all the intervals are stacked up purely in tune, with little or no vibrato to make anything drift or wobble. And sheep-gut strings, when bowed, create a different timbre, a different combination of overtones than steel strings do. Some people describe the timbre of a Baroque string ensemble as “pungent”, though I don’t like that characterization. I’ve heard one vocal musician who was not accustomed to early music tell me that singing in her choir with a Baroque orchestra accompanying them actually gave her a slight headache, because she was not yet accustomed to the stark, pure sonorities.

With The Four Seasons, each movement is accompanied by a sonnet that explains what Vivaldi is trying to convey. I had forgotten how heavy and violent the “Summer” concerto is supposed to be. Vivaldi tells us it’s about a farmer watching a heavy thunderstorm erupt into a hailstorm. Standing, pelted by hailstones, he watches as it ruins his wheat crop. New Trinity Baroque pelted out a fusillade of sharp sounds that, while perfectly consonant and tonal and measured, just as Vivaldi composed it, would startle the most jaded hard-rock music fan right out of their seat. Music doesn’t have to reach decibel levels that would damage your hearing in order to make all your nerve-endings fire. It just has to be played right.

Similarly, Vivaldi write passages in the “Winter” concerto that are absolutely sharp, spiky, and spine-tingling. You can feel the frost creeping over your windowpanes while you shudder in the cold. In the terraced crescendos of the opening of the first movement, pure, sharp intervals stack up one on top of the other, creating layers of palpable tension hanging in the air, until the lead violin bursts out with peals of cold sonic energy.

When modern-style string players try to interpret this on modern instruments, it can sound too smooth and blurry, too sweet. A small ensemble of gut-stringed instruments cannot “cut through the mix” and project like modern-style steel-stringed instruments; yet in Vivaldi’s setting, they can be far more cutting and clear and effective and energized than a much larger ensemble of modern instruments swathed in vibrato. You just have to experience it to appreciate the difference.

Now of course an effective performance of Baroque music has a lot more to it than just intervals and intonation. There are many expressive and interpretive techniques that skilled musicians bring to the task of revitalizing this music in what they call the historically-informed performance style. Any musician who plays this music will tell you that they are in the middle of a lifetime of learning to play expressively in more ways than I can convey in one essay. New Trinity Baroque’s performance this time around reminded me of one salient aspect of historical performance. There are many more.

I’m not implying that Baroque music and its resources are inherently superior or more effective in musical expression than a modern symphony orchestra playing music from the late 19th or 20th centuries. Far from it: music that more recent composers wrote to make use of the resources of more recent orchestras works most effectively when played by the same sort of orchestra playing the same sort of instruments that the composer wrote it for. So from Mahler to Philip Glass, you want a modern symphony orchestra. Those musicians wrote for those timbres and sonorities, and for instruments that could handle all those key modulations and remote tonalities and complex chordal dissonance. But for Bach and Vivaldi and Telemann, and even Mozart, you are missing a lot if you fail to experience them in meantone tuning played on instruments like those played in those peculiar times, played by musicians who study how to try to get back to the composers’ original intent.

As I’ve often said, no matter what kind of music I’m listening to — and if you know me you know that I’m equally passionate about rock, jazz, and all forms of contemporary commercial music as I am about classical music — you know that I like to get back to the roots of whatever music I’m presented with. When I heard the amazingly daring bebop jazz improvisations on the “standards”, I wanted to know where those tunes came from, and that’s when I went back toward the direction of the earliest decades of Broadway and writers like Irving Berlin. Before that, I had heard Walter Carlos’ Switched-On Bach in my early teens, more than ten years after it was recorded and released, and that is when I woke up to Baroque music. I heard these wonderful interpretations on the Moog synthesizer, and they excited me for what they were. But it set me on a journey to learn about the source of that music, its roots — and that led me to early music and historically-informed performance.

I feel that I can appreciate any style of music and any group of musicians as long as they are intelligent and skilled, and earnestly understand and live and breathe the music they play at its most basic level of interpretation. This is why I love groups like the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra and New Trinity Baroque, and I feel so privileged to have them perform right in my home town.

New Trinity Baroque performs Bach’s B minor Mass

Posted Sunday, March 6, 2011. Some corrections have been added since.

The stars aligned in Atlanta last week for something that will certainly never be repeated again.

On Sunday, February 27, the Atlanta Sacred Chorale, with a 22-piece modern orchestra, performed Bach’s B minor Mass at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts at Emory University. Then five and six days later, the New Trinity Baroque orchestra and the Georgia Tech Chamber Choir performed Bach’s B minor Mass with period instruments and Baroque tuning less than three miles away at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. Today the New Trinity Baroque performs again in Birmingham, Alabama.

I attended the February 27 performance of the Atlanta Sacred Chorale and the March 5 performance of New Trinity Baroque. I’ve seen both a modern and a historically-informed production of the full B minor Mass in the same week in the same town. That will never happen again in my lifetime, anywhere.

Now I volunteer with the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, the other Baroque orchestra based in Atlanta, Georgia. New Trinity Baroque and the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra don’t view each other as rivals, since they share so many musicians, both those who live in Atlanta and those who are flown in from out of state, to fill out their rosters. And the B minor Mass requires more players in the orchestra than just about any other work in the Baroque repertoire.

Here are my personal impressions.

What can you say about the greatest magum opus of the Baroque era and a lasting member on the short list of the greatest orchestral and choral musical compositions of all time? And to hear it played and sung in the authentic Baroque manner, rather than with a “modern” interpretation with modern tuning and instruments? It was a landmark experience for this armchair musicologist. Bach is deeply spiritual, and as a believer myself, this music speaks to me on such a deep level that I feel like I’m right in tune with what Bach was thinking and feeling in 1749.

Martha Perry, based in Bloomington, Indiana and affiliated with the Indiana University School of Music, was the concertmaster. Other Atlanta Baroque Orchestra regulars performing were: Elena Kraineva, viola; Anna Marsh, bassoon; Martha Bishop, bass; Janice Joyce flute; Ute Marks, violin. Our friend Wanda Yang Temko was the soprano soloist.

(Martha Bishop and Ute Marks are considered regular members of the New Trinity Baroque.)

Last Thursday, New Trinity Baroque director Predrag Gosta reported that they had sold 500 advance tickets to the first two shows. Tickets were $29 per person. Reports are that they had 220 paying audience members, not counting guests and comps, on Friday, March 4 at St. John United Methodist Church in Atlanta. Last night, Saturday, at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal, they had an audience of around 350; the place seats 400. Today, March 6, they are performing at Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, and that concert is free to the public.

The performers report that rehearsals commenced on Tuesday, March 8, and that they were all flying home on Monday, March 14.

Atlanta music critic Pierre Ruhe was there, and before the concert I spoke with him to thank him for the interview with the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra’s new Artistic Director Julie Andrijeski that he published. He said, “I’ll come and review the next Atlanta Baroque Orchestra concert that features dance.” Hmm.

As for the performance, the conductor on this night was Predrag Gosta, yet each concert is being performed under a different director(!) and so far it seems that Georgia Tech Chamber Choir director Jerry Ulrich and Mr. Gosta had considerably different styles and tempos. Before the concert, Ute Marks commented, “Ulrich was more labored and drawn-out. Predrag is going to be more direct and quicker.”

I would describe the sanctuary at St. Bart’s as intimate and close, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s not a traditional sanctuary space at all. The sound is good, but I’d characterize it as warm, meaning that it lacks some high-end definition and clarity. The orchestra ensemble sounded on the lush (for Baroque) side as a result. The choir was arrayed in a blended formation, not divided into four sections, which I found quite surprising given the needs of the demanding contrapuntal texture throughout Bach’s work.

According to the program, this was the Southeastern United States premiere on period instruments of the new 2006 Joshua Rifkin edition of the Mass in B minor.

The Georgia Tech Chamber Choir had about 40 voices. Most all are undergraduates and none of them are music majors. Given that, they performed very well; Jerry Ulrich must be a formidable director indeed. I must say, though, that I saw the Atlanta Sacred Chorale perform Bach’s B minor Mass just six days earlier at Schwartz Hall at Emory University, and this extremely accomplished amateur chorale of older, more mature singers is better, with a more even sound but also with excellent articulation and clarity of those startlingly difficult contrapuntal sections.

With regard to the orchestras in the two concerts, I’m reminded that I’m making a comparison between a choir and orchestra with “modern” instruments and a choir and orchestra with “period” instruments and performance practice, which are totally different musical approaches that cannot be directly compared. I will add as a footnote that one of the performers in the “modern” orchestra with the Atlanta Sacred Chorale was Atlanta Baroque Orchestra Resident Director Daniel Pyle, who brought his portable Baroque acoustic pipe organ, transposed up to modern tuning to match the other instruments in that ensemble.

Vocal soloists:

Wanda Yang Temko is widely known and beloved in Atlanta, and always expresses joy and vitality in her solos. This was unfortunately in contrast to tenor Adam Kirkpatrick. He sang adequately but with a rather heavy Romantic-sounding tone, and just did not look like he was having a good time doing it. Afterwards, I was told “This is the first time that Adam has ever performed in Baroque tuning.” That says to me that he is, although possessing quite a pedigree as a soloist, not experienced in historically-informed performance in the Baroque period at all, and it showed in his singing style. Contrast this again with well-known Terry Barber, countertenor, who was revelatory. His Agnus Dei was the high point of the entire concert, and he used his ease and facility across the entire alto range to beautifully express everything Bach gave him to say. I don’t have much to add about Paul Max Tipton, young and up-and-coming baritone. Nothing against his fine singing; it’s just that in my opinion, compared to the other solos Bach wrote for this piece, I don’t think the bass-baritone solos offer as much opportunity for vocal expression. Faint praise, I know; but when you’re tapped to sing bass in one of the greatest musical compositions of all time, what’s not to like about that?

One thing I’d like to commend Predrag Gosta on is his decision to take the time to bring individual instrumental soloists to stand in front for each movement, despite the crowded conditions and the need to keep everything moving forward due to the extreme length of the piece. This enhanced the connection between the instrumental soloists and vocal soloists in the exquisite duets, and brought out the individual instrumental characteristics against the tendency of the hall to blend the ensemble sound together a bit too much. Somehow nothing seemed labored or drawn-out in Gosta’s direction. Gosta also transported things from movement to movement and section to section often without any breaks at all, and somehow there were only a couple of stops to retune in the entire presentation.

Instrumental soloists included: Martie Perry, concertmaster; Karolina Bäter, flute; Mariane Pfau, oboe/d’amore; and Paul Hopkins, corno da caccia.

After the concert, Martie Perry was calmly triumphant, yet visibly exerted. “It’s a lot of extra work for the orchestra to deal with three different conductors–especially for the concertmaster,” she said.

Things were wrapping up at St. Bart’s around 10:45 pm, and the orchestra and choir had to depart for Alabama at 10:00 am. I wish I could road trip out to see them again, but hopefully somebody will post a review online.

Conclusion, Comments, and Upcoming:

It’s one for the record books. The Atlanta Sacred Chorale gave their performance of Bach’s B minor Mass at Schwartz Hall at Emory University on Sunday, February 27, while New Trinity Baroque gave their performance of the same work on Saturday, March 5 less than three miles away at St. Bartholomew’s. Pierre Ruhe commented to me “Atlanta’s fine arts scene is more fragmented than any other city. Nobody knows what anybody else is planning to do.” I know that these things have to be planned far in advance, but I hope that local leaders of the various performing ensembles could make a better effort to communicate and plan together and not remain in their own separate spaces with only a vacuum between them.

The Atlanta Baroque Orchestra intends to book their next concert on the same weekend as the next New Trinity Baroque concert. New Trinity are performing “Mozart meets Haydn” in one performance only on Saturday, May 21 at 8:00 pm. The Atlanta Baroque Orchestra concert, whose title is as yet unannounced, is the next afternoon, at Roswell Presbyterian. Martha Bishop commented on how she wished that she could work with the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra this time, but had to make a prior commitment to New Trinity. Well, I hope that any sufficiently motivated concertgoers will attend both concerts. St. Bart’s and Roswell Presbyterian are an easy 30-minute drive apart, mostly a straight shot on Georgia 400.

I should add that on Sunday, March 13 at 3:00 pm, I’m singing tenor with the Michael O’Neal Singers at Roswell United Methodist Church in their production of Brahms’ German Requiem (in a newly-prepared English translation by the late Lara Hoggard). This concert will feature 150 singers and a 42-piece orchestra. There are some parallels between Bach’s B minor Mass and Brahms’ Requiem. Both are landmarks of Christian music on the concert stage, and both are considered the magnum opus of their respective composers, each of whom are considered among the most important and influential composers not only of their own style period but also in the entire history of Western music.