Apollo’s Fire in lively Vivaldi concertos – and a tribute to a deceased canary

Apollo’s Fire
Jeannette Sorrell, conductor
Jeffrey Strauss, baritone
Kathie Stewart, traverso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Cleveland Heights, OH
March 8, 2019

Vivaldi: Concerto in D for Two Violins, Two Cellos, and Strings, RV 564
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048
Vivaldi: Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins, RV 580 (from L’estro armonico, Op. 3)
Telemann: Funeral Cantata for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird, TWV 20:37
Vivaldi: Flute Concerto in D, Il gardellino, RV 428 (from Six Flute Concertos, Op. 10)
Vivaldi/Sorrell: La Folia, after Trio Sonata in D minor, RV 63 (from Twelve Trio Sonatas, Op. 1)

Branded as “Three Duels and a Funeral”, Apollo’s Fire (fresh off their win at the Grammys) offered a generous program comprised of a trio of Vivaldi concertos along with a funereal oddity by Telemann, fleshed out with additional music by Bach and more Vivaldi. The first “duel” presented was Vivaldi’s Concerto in D for Two Violins, Two Cellos, and Strings. Despite the evening’s moniker, these concertos were rather congenial affairs as far as duels are concerned, with the opening work particularly affecting in its consonant combination of soloists on both ends of the string spectrum (violinists Johanna Novom and Adriane Post, cellists René Schiffer and Rebecca Landell Reed), further encouraged by the crisp cohesiveness of the supporting ensemble. Novom led the central Largo with beautifully singing lines which Post duly imitated, while rapid fire playing amongst the four soloists made for a rousing finale.

Jeffrey Strauss and Apollo’s Fire in Telemann’s Canary Cantata, photo credit Apollo’s Fire

In her spoken introduction, Jeannette Sorrell referred to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 as the “most democratic piece in classical music”, owing to its equal treatment of all nine players. Matters were propelled forward with joyous energy, only to arrive at a harmonic stasis in the slow movement of only two chords, wherein Sorrell’s continuo acted as a ghostly recitative. The work closed with a driving theme, vigorously passed from instrument to another. Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor for Four Violins saw Novom and Post resume soloist duties along with Susanna Perry Gilmore and Carrie Krause. One was quite taken intricate interplay amongst the quartet during this comparatively sober work, not in the least during a striking moment when the orchestral accompaniment all but dropped out of the fold.

The evening’s centerpiece was a work of remarkable musical eccentricity, namely Telemann’s Funeral Cantata for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird. Written at the behest of a Hamburg patron whose pet canary fell victim to a hungry feline, the Canary Cantata retells just that over the course of its 17-minute duration, ultimately an ingenious blend of tragedy and comedy. Handling the vocal line (originally in German, presented here in Sorrell’s English translation) with verve and aplomb was baritone Jeffrey Strauss, who further brought the text to life via some choice props and acting under the direction of Christine McBurney – judiciously used to add comedy without gimmick. As detailed in an interview with Cleveland Classical, Strauss’ vitality was all the more laudable given his recent recovery from major heart surgery. Sighing strings opened the work in this music of very fine quality, such that it could easily be mistaken for that of a rather more serious subject matter. The aria “My dear Canary, sleep well tonight!” was genuinely moving, a lovely tribute to the protagonist’s avian friend. A genuine curiosity, expertly performed, and perhaps an inspiration for Alkan’s equally perplexing and similarly themed Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Papagallo from almost a century later.

This ornithological thread was continued in one further Vivaldi concerto, the Flute Concerto in D bearing the nickname “Il gardellino” (The Goldfinch). Principal flute Kathie Stewart delivered an obvious invocation of birdcalls in her limber and fluid playing, and a charming cantabile led to the fluttering finale. Vivaldi’s rendering of La Folia has become one of AF’s signature pieces; originally a trio sonata, the evening closed with Sorrell’s arrangement, recomposed as a concerto grosso. A commanding reading of the canonical chord progression gave way to a breathless tour de force, with some good-natured dueling between violinists Alan Choo and Emi Tanabe emblematic of the ensemble’s blistering virtuosity.

Vivaldi features prominently on Cleveland Orchestra’s Thanksgiving menu

Cleveland Orchestra
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Peter Otto, violin
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 23, 2018

Vivaldi: Le quattro stagioni
Mozart: Ballet Music for Idomeneo, K367 – Chaconne
Haydn: Symphony No. 94 in G major, Hob. I:94, Surprise

The Cleveland Orchestra’s Thanksgiving weekend concerts were an ample serving of comfort food, with the first half devoted to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – a follow up of sorts to last season’s traversal of another seasonal quadriptych, namely Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons. Initially published as part of the composer’s The Contest Between Harmony and Invention (Op. 8), The Four Seasons comprise the first four and certainly best known selections. These concerts were not without some controversy, however, as the violin soloist was originally slated to be the ousted William Preucil (whom I saw perform the work on this stage back in February 2007, coincidentally also under the baton of McGegan). First associate concertmaster Peter Otto was on hand to more than capably take the reins.

Peter Otto, all photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The immediately familiar strains of Spring featured Otto in some sprightly interplay with second violin chair Stephen Rose. Some minor intonation issues were apparent initially but soon resolved. The Largo was of long-bowed repose while the closing was a joyous dance filled with rapid passagework. A minor-key haze marked Summer, taking flight in due course in evidence of the orchestra’s tight chemistry under McGegan’s expert direction from the harpsichord. A remarkable expressiveness was achieved in the finale, while the fire returned in the breathless finale.

Autumn boasted the rustic charm of the harvest, given with an authentic rhythmic snap. An affecting melody played over undulating arpeggios in the harpsichord made the Adagio molto a standout, while the closing Allegro was – appropriately – a joyful Thanksgiving. Winter introduced dissonances that must have been shocking to audiences in Vivaldi’s day; the songful Largo, however, was enough to warm even the coldest of winter days.

The Viennese classicism of Haydn and Mozart rounded off the program. Mozart’s opera Idomeneo is thought of as his first fully mature operatic foray. The composer produced a fine suite of ballet music to accompany the work as per the French tradition, likely owing to the French origins of the original libretto. McGegan offered the opening chaconne; although satisfying I would have preferred inclusion of the modest remainder of the ballet score. Apparent from the declamatory opening onward was the immediate charm of a Mozart opera, here with the intimacy of communication fostered through the reduced-sized orchestra in playing of sparkling transparency and clarity.

Last on the menu was Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G major, known by its memorable moniker Surprise. A graceful and leisurely introduction set the stage for the vigor of the movement proper. Under McGegan, the orchestra operated as a single organism, achieving a wide range of expression in the development even within classical proportions. The Andante is what earned the work its nickname, full of tongue-in-cheek wit, and McGegan maximized the dynamic contrasts to further its irresistible appeal. A fine oboe solo from Jeffrey Rathbun counted as another highlight; the penultimate movement carried the swagger of an Old World minuet while the finale was a whirlwind of effervescence – one only wished it could have lasted longer.

Peter Otto and Nicholas McGegan


Perlman delights in Lyric Opera recital

Itzhak Perlman, violin
Rohan De Silva, piano
Civic Opera House
Chicago, IL
April 23, 2017

Vivaldi: Sonata in A Major for Violin and Continuo, Op. 2 No. 2, RV 31
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24, Spring
Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op. 73
Ravel: Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major

Kreisler: Sicilienne and Rigaudon in the style of Francœur
Tchaikovsky, transcribed Auer: Lensky’s Aria from Eugene Onegin
Wieniawski: Etude-Caprice in A minor, Op.18 No. 4
Williams: Theme from Schindler’s List
Brahms, transcribed Joachim: Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor
Franz Ries: Perpetuum mobile, from Suite No. 3 in G major, Op. 34

An Itzhak Perlman recital is always a major event, as evidenced by the near-capacity crowd he drew at the cavernous Civic Opera House.  With an opera season ending in March, the venue was certainly put to good use in an enjoyable afternoon from Perlman and long-time recital partner, the Sri Lankan pianist Rohan De Silva.  A stage set of classical pillars provided an elegant backdrop (the advantages of performing in an opera house), and video screens showing close-up views in real time flanked the stage, helping to create a sense of intimacy in a large hall.

Itzhak Perlman, photo credit Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Perlman arranged his program chronologically, beginning with the Sonata in A major for Violin and Continuo by Vivaldi.  An energetic presto opened, effectively serving as a warmup to the sprightly second movement.  The slow movement was brief but genuinely expressive, and a joyful finale rounded off this compact work of a mere seven minutes.

In an unannounced change from the printed program which suggested Beethoven’s first violin sonata (Op. 12 No. 1), Perlman elected for the more seasonally appropriate though well-worn Spring sonata (Op. 24).  It opened with a wonderfully bucolic grace, although Perlman’s intonation was regrettably suspect at times.  A languid Adagio molto espressivo followed with some especially lovely playing from De Silva.  The two closing movements both were marked by a delightful interplay between violin and piano, and an elegant melody heightened the finale.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 offered some Romantic fervor, with Perlman presenting them in the continuous, unbroken cycle that the composer intended, rather than three separate works.  I was struck by the rippling of the first and the fire of the last, yet in these works originally envisioned for cello or clarinet, they sounded somewhat timid on the violin, requiring more vigor to compensate than Perlman managed to muster.

Ravel’s relatively brief Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major was the only work programmed for the second half in what was surely a calculated move to allow ample time for encores.  Beginning with a single note line in the solo piano, the first movement was one of coloristic writing, pitting the violin and piano on more austere terms with one another than the previous works which favored conviviality.  Ravel’s own take on American musical traditions came to light in the second movement “Blues”, much like in the Piano Concerto of a few years later, replete with blue notes and slides.

Perlman played the accented pizzicatos with his bow hand and the others were plucked up on the fingerboard, but in the former one wished for a greater abrasiveness.  The last movement was acutely virtuosic, yet the delivery was rather dry and detached – but certainly not enough not to garner an enormous standing ovation, as much a recognition for Perlman’s extraordinary career as for Sunday afternoon’s performance.

And ample encores there were – no fewer than six.  While the four sonatas fared a bit lackluster, it was during the encores that the violinist truly sprung to life, and Perlman became Perlman.  With a charismatic stage presence, he explained to the audience that he brought with him a list of every work he’s played in Chicago – humorously suggesting it dated back to 1912 – so as to avoid duplication.  No Perlman recital would be complete without a work of Kreisler, and he offered the illustrious composer-violinist’s Sicilienne and Rigaudon in the style of Francœur, once erroneously thought to be a bona fide work of its namesake.  Perlman exuded an effortless charm in the Sicilienne; the Rigaudon proved that his remarkable prestidigitation is still very much intact.

“Lensky’s Aria” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin followed – quite appropriate as Lyric Opera presented the complete work on the same stage just a few months prior – in a transcription by the legendary Leopold Auer.  A work of rich melancholy, it proved to be surprisingly well-suited to the violin.  The Wieniawski Etude-Caprice in A minor came next; a signature work of Perlman, it never fails to impress.  This was only outdone by the Theme from Schindler’s List – one of John William’s finest film scores, it should be remembered that Perlman played in the original soundtrack.  His deeply moving performance had particular poignancy on Sunday given the proximity to Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Two briefer works brought the afternoon to an agreeable close: the searing passion of the first of Brahms’ rousing Hungarian Dances, and the dizzying acrobatics of Franz Ries’ Perpetuum mobile.

Perlman Lyric
Civic Opera House