The “I”s Have It at PBO

Jonathan Rhodes Lee on November 21, 2011
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

Corelli. Vivaldi. Geminiani. Start listing these composers’ names in front of conservatory-trained string players, and they’ll start snoring (loudly) before you even get close to saying “concerti grossi.” But put such works into the hands of people who live and breathe 18th-century music, who understand the style like a language they’ve been immersed in since birth, people who also just so happen to have boundless “chops,” and you might be reminded why some composers of this period wrote hundreds and hundreds of these types of pieces.

The latest set by Philharmonia Baroque, which features concertos by six composers whose names end in i — Corelli, Gregori, Geminiani, Vivaldi, Sammartini, and Scarlatti — provides such an opportunity. I heard the set on Saturday, in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church.

The concerto is one of the perfect musical representations of 18th-century thought. It has a few ubiquitous characteristics: three- or four-movement structures, a tidy alternation of slow and fast music, the ritornello principle, and foot-tapping rhythmic consistencies. These are intellectual constructs of a rational age. J.S. Bach’s first biographer, Johann Forkel, stated that by studying Vivaldi’s concerti, Bach learned to “think musically.” Given the Italian concerto’s tendencies toward easily identifiable melodic ideas, clear phrasing, and audible architecture, it isn’t difficult to grasp what Forkel meant, nor why the Vivaldian concerto would have been so appealing to Bach as he came to first maturity.

Such clarity of communication requires an artist with firm interpretive ideas, which Verbruggen possesses in great abundance.

Yet the term age of reason by no means sums up the entirety of the 18th century. Figures like James Boswell in England or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Germany were later manifestations of discourses of feeling and individualism that stretched back to the beginning of that century. The concerto had a mode of expression for this “age of sentiment,” too, not only in the searching, sometimes nearly formless slow movements, but also in the very notion of a solo concerto, with a “rational” orchestra answered by the heroic efforts of a lone soloist.

Both Sides Now

PBO presented both sides of this aesthetic coin at its concert on Saturday. Recorder virtuoso Marion Verbruggen joined the band, bringing her usual confident swagger and nonchalant virtuosity. Verbruggen is a constant favorite of Bay Area audiences, and it’s impossible to forget why. Her rendition of Vivaldi’s La tempesta di mare on alto recorder was delightfully creative, with charming touches that had the audience chuckling. Such clarity of communication requires an artist with firm interpretive ideas, which Verbruggen possesses in great abundance.

The entire ensemble worked together like the ordered societies that ... preoccupied the minds of 18th-century thinkers.

The balance was a bit of a problem on this piece, with the alto recorder overpowered, especially in its lower ranges, by the ensemble. Verbruggen’s next trip onto the stage, for Sammartini’s Concerto in F Major, redressed this issue. Verbruggen switched to the soprano recorder for this work, and her sound pierced right through the orchestra for a brilliant effect. She filled the solo line with a staggering array of improvised ornaments, which earned a torrent of applause, cheers, and foot stomping from an otherwise rather civilized audience. These are the types of responses that Verbruggen regularly elicits.

Ottavio Dantone
Ottavio Dantone

PBO was also hosting a guest conductor for this set. Visiting from Ravenna, Italy, Ottavio Dantone led the group from the harpsichord. Dantone is the director of another orchestra, the Accademia Bizantina, and has worked with a wide array of orchestras around the world.

Dantone is as comfortable at the keyboard as he is on a conductor’s podium, and he drew on his multiple talents for this set. He was hardly overbearing as a conductor, allowing the quite capable band to coordinate most things under the watchful eye of Carla Moore, who played principal violin for this set. This freed Dantone to play rather intricate (and very beautiful) continuo realizations throughout the concert. Particularly effective was his approach to the introductory Adagio and slow movement of Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 4, which he peppered with little harpsichord cadenzas — a surprising and engaging choice.

Dantone’s leadership style was one that evidently drew the players into a collaborative creative effort. Nothing was ever flashy, but neither was the overall effect too cautious. I haven’t heard PBO play with this much poise and discipline in quite a while. The entire ensemble worked together like the ordered societies or astounding machines that, like the concerto, preoccupied the minds of 18th-century thinkers.