Saturday, February 04, 2012

Europa Galante Chamber Orchestra: Vivaldi Pyrotechnics

Sometimes, the best laid plans... I had looked forward to seeing my conducting hero Stanislaw Skrowaczewski  perform the Schubert 9th in St Louis. At 88, he can't be conducting much longer. I thought the same when I saw him do the Bruckner 8th in St Louis in 2009, so hope I am wrong. But, horrid wet and stormy weather and threat of overnight and AM fog kept me at home.

Plan B, my neighbor had an extra ticket to the performance of The Europa Galante Chamber Orchestra, Fabio Biondi leading, with guest Mezzo Soprano Vivica Genaux. I was not all that thrilled at first, as Baroque music, Vivaldi and florid singing are not among my top choices. I hope I got a seat where I could sneak out early if needed.

I ended up staying for a most remarkable and exciting show.

Biondi and his small band have made a name for themselves by dusting off the works of Vivaldi and his contemporaries with exciting and visceral programs. No slow, scratchy, out of tune, bland and pedantic "authentic" performance here. The orchestra is usually two or three to a part with harpsichord, theorbo, and violine on continuo. The orchestra is usually two or three to a part with harpsichord, theorbo, and violine on continuo and they tune their instruments to the standard of the time. Whether you call them historically informed or authentic, their sound and vitality is heads above some other groups I have heard which seem to sap all the life out of the works.

Alaskan born mezzo Vivica Genaux is in demand for her vivid portrayals of baroque opera roles, her incredible technique and her equal ability with bel canto roles. She has a vibrant and engaging stage presence, may be a bit over-the-top drama at times but one can tell she loves the music and loves performing it even more.

The intelligently arranged program juxtaposed string works by Vivaldi, Locatelli and Nardini with arias from Vivaldi's operas including "Tito Manilo", "Farnace" and "Catone in Utica".

Genaux probably sang more notes in the evening than did the all the members of the chorus singing the Mahler Second down the street. Her runs and leaps were breathtaking and always clear. She verily oozed the drama and passion in the arias, many of them likely written for castrati. Most notable: the poignant "E prigonerio e re" (I am both prisoner and king) from "Semiramide" and "Alma oppressa" from "La fida ninfa". In her final aria "Agitata da due venti" ("I am tossed by two winds") from "Adelade" , Genaux's torrent of runs and trills literally blew across the audience like stormy winds.

The band's instrumental selections were equally fine. Vivaldi's Concerto for 2 Violins in A minor was so admired by Bach that it is one he transcribed for keyboard. Biondi and the leader of the second violins Andrea Rognoni were equally fine solos for this vibrant work. The Locatelli Concerto Grosso Op.7 # 6 "The Weeping of Arianna" with its sobbing phrases and long Largo sections, was particularly compelling and totally unknown to me. Simply fine examples of baroque writing and performance.

So, although I was tinged with regret over not travelling to St Louis for the Schubert, I was rewarded with a new (to me) discovery in the Europa Galante Orchestra... one that I will be exploring in the future.

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