WATERLOO -- The music of Antonio Vivaldi, original and refigured, featuring a pair of superb local violin soloists, led the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra to two inspired concerts Saturday, Oct. 8, at the Brown Derby Ballroom.
The concerts were led masterfully by the orchestra’s Music Director Jason Weinberger. The Brown Derby offers audiences a chance to hear concerts in an intimate setting not unlike attending a secular concert in the Baroque era itself, which was often given in a city’s tavern or public hall. The serving of beverages at the concert added to the informality of Saturday’s events.
The orchestra employed reduced forces, probably similar to performances of the time. As the printed program only lists personnel for the full orchestra, I will name Saturday’s excellent performers: First violins were Beth Hoffman, Therese Slatter and Todd Williams. Seconds included Mary Bellone, Robert Espe and Andrew Gentzsch. Violists were Kathleen Sihler and Sally Malcolm, and the continuo was formed by Isaac-Paster-Chermak, cello; Alexander Pershounin, bass; and Jason Weinberger at the harpsichord. I attended and am reviewing the earlier of the two identical concerts.
The work of Vivaldi (1668-1741) remains one of the great highlights of the final years of glory of Venice; that storied seaport on Italy’s Adriatic coast. A Catholic priest with flaming red hair, he was also one of the age’s great violinists, and a prolific composer, with innumerable works to his name, including 40 operas. He was a long-time employee of Venice’s Hospedale della Pieta, a home for orphaned girls, including the offspring of many of the amorous misadventures of the local nobility.
The young ladies were well cared for and well educated, and formed an orchestra and choir that continually astonished visitors with their musical perfection, and which were the inspiration for many of Vivaldi’s creations. Among them was “The Four Seasons,” his most famous work — written for solo violin and strings, and one of the earliest pieces of program music, depicting nature and human activity in each of the four seasons of the year (he is said to have himself written the sonnets that accompany each movement).
The orchestra played two versions each of “Summer” and Autumn”— first, Vivaldi’s original, and secondly, the corresponding season from “Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi — The Four Seasons” (2012). Richter is a German-born (1966) British composer, prolific and eclectic. He is known as a “post-minimalist,” meaning that his music often draws reflectively on repetitive components built into a slowly mutating compositional web.
His “Vivaldi Recomposed” topped the iTune classical charts in Germany, the United Kingdom and the US.
Both “Summers” were admirably played by the orchestra and solo violinist Ross Winter, who teaches violin at the University of Northern Iowa, and who exhibited here both a musically driven intensity and technical prowess.
Richter’s work departed from a common trend in “recomposed” pieces, that of altering the original work beyond the point of recognition or comparison. Richter always let Vivaldi have top billing, generally allowing Vivaldi’s original movement openings and character to stand, and gradually introducing subtle variations in components such as harmony, rhythmic details and structure. The composer’s innovations, such as the last section’s rhythmic underpinning of a 2 against 3 cross-rhythm, were continually surprising and enjoyable, the more so because of their subordination to Vivaldi’s score.
The “Autumns” were graced by the melodic and technical gifts of violinist Anita Tucker, the wcfsymphony's concertmistress, and who handled the familiar strains and daunting double-stops of the original with aplomb and negotiated the Richter with mastery. The composer’s opening section of his “Autumn” began with Vivaldi’s score, but soon surprised all by dropping beats to form sudden metric surprises — a brilliant and mirth-provoking idea.
Richter’s work held the interest of the audience and engendered its warm appreciation. I would only question the continually abrupt endings to sections—jarring finishes to what had previously proved pleasurable.
The orchestra, all facing inward, sat circled around the soloists, which provided a better sense of precision to audience and ensemble alike—a seating that I’d be happy to see repeated, when appropriate. All in all, the homage to this great Baroque composer proved to be an enjoyable and enlightening event.
Thanks are due to sponsorship by Heartland Financial Services, the Iowa Arts Council and McElroy Trust, the various music sponsors, and to Phil Maas and Jaqueline Halbloom from Iowa Public Radio.
The symphony’s next performance is scheduled for the afternoon of October 30th in the Great Hall of the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center. It will feature music from the Harry Potter film series, as well as other works of a “magical” nature.
Should you not yet be a symphony-goer, I heartily encourage you to look into attending a concert or two of the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra—great music, masterfully performed, at low cost, in marvelous locations.
Thomas Tritle holds emeritus status at the School of Music of UNI, and is the former principal horn and program note writer for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra.