Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Voices of Music gave the first San Francisco performance in its 2015–2016 Concert Series. The program consisted almost entirely of virtuoso concertos by Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, and Giuseppe Torelli. Many of the selections were appropriate to the holiday season. Thus the concertos by both Corelli and Torelli were explicitly written for the celebration of the Nativity; and these days both of them are usually called “Christmas Concertos.” Similarly, Vivaldi was represented by the “Winter” concerto from the collection of the first four concertos in his Opus 8 known as The Four Seasons; and the “Autumn” concerto was also thrown in for good measure.
Both Corelli and Torelli depicted the Nativity through their respective concertos by concluding with a Pastorale movement. This is a peacefully quiet form with an underlying three-beat pulse, usually in 12/8 or 6/8, taken at an easy, but not excessively solemn, pace. For its time it was the musical illustration of the presence of shepherds at the birth of Jesus. This form was also recognized through the one non-Italian work on the program, an “overture” by the eighteenth-century Dutch composer Pieter Hellendaal, which was the Pastorale concluding the fourth concerto from his Opus 3 collection of six concerti grossi.
Hellendaal’s was one of the few ensemble works on the program. Both the Corelli and Torelli concertos featured solo parts for two violins and cello, performed by Cynthia Miller Freivogel, Carla Moore, and Elisabeth Reed, respectively. Freivogel took first violin in the Corelli and then exchanged places with Moore for the Torelli. While these compositions were both fully notated, last night’s performances were distinguished by a delightful sense of in-the-moment spontaneity that arises so frequently in Voices of Music concerts and continues to remind us that the practice of jamming did not originate with the jazz musicians of the twentieth century.
Execution was consistently a matter of give-and-take, both among soloists and between soloists and ensemble. That spontaneity was facilitated by the reduced size of the ensemble. This consisted of only two first violins and one second violin (with changes of parts among Lisa Grodin, Maxine Nemerovski, and Gabrielle Wunsch), one viola (Maria Caswell), and a continuo of cello (Tanya Tomkins), violone (Farley Pearce), archlute (David Tayler), organ (Katherine Heater), and harpsichord (Hanneke van Proosdij, also conducting). The prevailing spirit was thus one of friends gathering to make music, rather than an orchestra and soloists performing for an audience. Those of us sitting in the sanctuary of St. Mark’s amounted to very fortunate eavesdroppers.
That spirit of spontaneity was just as present in the two Four Seasons concertos, if not more so. Freivogel tore into the virtuoso passages of the “Winter” concerto that well suited all of the treacherously frigid language of the descriptive sonnet for this concerto. In the “Autumn” concerto Moore even resorted to a bit of physical comedy, falling asleep while playing the music for the text about those drunken villagers who “end their revelry in sleep.”
The program also included three more Vivaldi concertos, one of which was an ensemble concerto in G minor (RV 157). The other two provided opportunities for two of the ensemble musicians to take solo turns. In the first half of the program, Tomkins performed the D minor cello concerto (RV 407) with that same spirit of energetic spontaneity that pervaded the entire evening. In the second half Lisa Grodin performed the ninth concerto (in D major) from Vivaldi’s Opus 3 collection. This is one of the concertos that so appealed to Johann Sebastian Bach that he rearranged it as a harpsichord solo. Particularly interesting in this case was the decision to take the opening measures of the first movement, marked Allegro, at a more stately pace, creating the effect of an Adagio introduction to the subsequent rapid-fire display of virtuosity.
Once again it became clear that the very name “Voices of Music” referred to the highly personalized expressiveness that individual voices (including those of instruments) can summon within an intimate gathering of fellow musicians.