Avital and Venice Baroque Orchestra serve up a concerto feast at Rockport

July 13, 2019 at 12:19 pm

By Andrew J. Sammut

Mandolinist Avi Avital performed with the Venice Baroque Orchestra Friday night at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Harald Hoffman

Mandolinist Avi Avital performed with the Venice Baroque Orchestra Friday night at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Harald Hoffmann

Rockport Chamber Music Festival attendees broke etiquette Friday night and applauded between movements for the Venice Baroque Orchestra and mandolinist Avi Avital. Even with a few difficulties, the world-famous performers led an insightful and affectionate ride through the eighteenth century Italian concerto at the Shalin Liu Performance Center.

The focus, unsurprisingly, was on Vivaldi. The Red Priest didn’t invent the three-movement concerto but his knack for virtuosity mixed with lyricism solidified the form into a staple.

The VBO has a well-earned reputation and several awards for performing the music of their fellow Venetian. They also previously collaborated with Avital on a 2015 album of Vivaldi’s music. In 2010, Avital became the first Grammy-nominated mandolinist and remains a globetrotting advocate for the instrument.

This highly anticipated lineup started with creative linkages between composers. Vivaldi’s younger contemporary Geminiani was acclaimed for his orchestral transcriptions of Corelli’s influential sonatas. His Concerto Grosso in D Minor (H.143) is an arrangement of Corelli’s Follia variations, a favorite theme for Baroque composers. Geminiani’s retooling maintains Corelli’s solo line—by turns graceful, intense and increasingly frenzied—and splits the difference between a concerto grosso and a solo concerto: the concertino includes two violins and a cello but spotlights the first violin.

Concertmaster Gianpiero Zanocco’s breakneck passages showed nuanced articulation and dynamics. His direction allowed the VBO’s vibrant blend and interaction between contrapuntal parts to emerge with clarity as well as power here and during the rest of the program.

Cellist Massimo Raccanelli’s brief solos in Geminiani’s variations matched Zanocco in tone and drive. Raccanelli and his continuo partners, lutenist Ivano Zanenghi and harpsichordist Lorenzo Feder, also provided spare accompaniment the whole night.

Issues with pitch were manifest throughout the evening. With thirteen temperamental period string instruments (plus lute and harpsichord) onstage during a humid evening in a coastal town, these lapses may be inevitable. Still, the pitchy moments didn’t detract from the overall energy and beauty.

Avital then joined the VBO for his arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D for Lute (RV 93). The young mandolinist’s full round tone and utterly natural phrasing perfectly suited this joyous piece. Keeping his solo playing just a hair behind the pulse contrasted effectively with Zanocco and the VBO’s slight push on the ritornellos of the opening Allegro. Avital leaned into and subtly accelerated ornaments in the sweet solo serenade of the succeeding Largo, while his bulleting notes kicked the strings forward in the tarantella-like final Allegro.

Returning to orchestral music and back to the generation before Vivaldi, fellow Venetian Albinoni’s short Concerto in G for Strings (Op. 7 No. 4) gave the VBO a chance to show off tight ensemble lines with an elegant feel. They then closed the first half of the evening with another Vivaldi concerto arranged by Avital.

This time, second violinist Anna Fusek switched to sopranino recorder for her to take over the second mandolin part in Vivaldi’s Concerto in G for Two Mandolins (RV 532). Transcription was common in Vivaldi’s time, and the mandolin plays a single melodic line anyway, so Avital’s idea was both stylistically justifiable and intriguing.

Unfortunately, as heard from far stage left fifteen feet above the performers, the hall’s acoustics smothered both soloists in the festive outer movements. Based on the tender middle Andante, Avital’s arrangement let the recorder speak in idiomatic long notes and reedy scales. The soloists responded to each other’s phrasing and dynamics with palpable sensitivity.

Following intermission (and a changed seating location), the VBO welcome the audience back with a cool run-through of Vivaldi’s brief but tense Concerto in D Minor for Strings (RV 127). Avital then returned for the Mandolin Concerto in C (RV 425), the only solo concerto Vivaldi actually wrote for the instrument. Avital’s chimes locked in with the pizzicato strings of the chattering first movement. Yet his ascending repeated note phrases in the second movement were too fast and lost some melodic cohesion. The mandolinist’s zither-like strums and striking octaves were far more effective in the concluding Allegro.

Avital introduced the penultimate work of the evening, the Concerto in E-Flat for Mandolin, attributed to Neapolitan opera composer Paisiello, with remarks about the uniquely dramatic music (and attitude) of Neapolitan culture. The concerto’s sing-song harmonies are definitely in that style. Yet its punchy themes and boisterous ritornellos don’t sound like Paisiello’s long-spun, gentle melodies. Still, this piece needed someone’s name on it, or audiences might have missed out on its theatricality.

Avital came off like a dramatic tenor from the opening Allegro maestoso, bursting into nimble runs, massaging the curves of the themes and inserting brusque accents at phrase endings. The wash of strings and lush minor key of the second movement Larghetto grazioso were a cushion for Avital’s throbbing tremolos and plaintive phrases, and the Allegretto’s skipping rhythms and flourishes provided a happy ending.

All that drama set the stage for the evening’s closer, Avital’s arrangement of the famous “Summer” concerto from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (Op. 8 No. 2, RV 315). Avital’s lead shaped the first movement’s falling tuttis with care so that each musical gesture flowed into the next one. When the VBO portrayed the music’s programmatic storms, it was powerful and well-balanced so that bass lines clearly pumped under the violins’ thundering tremolos and racing lines. Avital’s deliberately tinny tremolos in the Adagio gave an apt frightened expression amid the orchestra’s menacing rumbles.

A mandolin is bound to lose something in terms of sustain and volume in a work written for the violin. Avital’s solo lines in the climactic outpouring of the final Presto couldn’t help but come across as a scaled-down version of the familiar work. Still, his technical assurance and sheer musical personality made this setting a bold choice.

The Largo from Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in C (RV 443), with Avital’s pure, golden middle register and crystalline high notes over the Venice Baroque Orchestra’s glass-like mix, served as a subdued but satisfying encore.

Rockport Chamber Music Festival presents pianist Richard Goode in a program of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Janáček and Debussy 8 p.m. Saturday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. rockportmusic.org; 978-546-7391

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