Our first high cultural event of the season was last night at the University of Arizona's UAPresents, violinist Robert McDuffie and the Venice Baroque Orchestra playing the Seasons Project: Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons in the first half of the concert, and Philip Glass's second Violin Concerto, entitled The American Four Seasons. McDuffie commissioned the concerto with exactly this pairing in mind, but during the early sketches, McDuffie and Glass differed on which of the concerto's four movements corresponded to which season. Rather than make a statement in the titles, the movements are simply numbered one through four. McDuffie and the VBO are touring the US with this program through November 19, a great opportunity to hear Glass's new concerto in its intended context.
The Venice Baroque Orchestra consists of five first violins, four seconds, three violas and cellos, a double bass, a lutenist, and a keyboard player who played harpsichord in the Vivaldi and a Yamaha MO-8 synthesizer in the Glass. The string players all stand in a semi-circle (except for the cellists, the only ones seated), and there was no conductor for either piece. Everyone was dressed in black, very elegant. Seeing the entire ensemble standing piqued my curiosity and suggested that this concert would have more immediacy and excitement than I usually expect from a classical concert, that the performers approached this in the spirit of a pop concert.
I'm not familiar with the Vivaldi concertos, but the performance was beautiful and most likely a bit idiosyncratic. I thought it was a very romantic performance, more flexible tempi than I expected, even though the VBO is considered a period orchestra and probably plays with more rather than less historical information. It's a typical Baroque convention to mark piano and forte in the score, so perhaps the romantic swells in volume were a contemporary interpretation. The string writing for all parts was masterful, with the sections displacing and complementing each other. I especially liked the solo passages, where McDuffie would start by himself and then be joined by two or three other players. In one passage, the leaders of the first and second violin section seemed to echo McDuffie's melodic lines, slippery little fragments of sound whose shape and timbre seemed centuries ahead of their time.
One of the other common subgroups was a trio with the lute player and the lead cellist. The lutenist was seated front and center, much more prominent and audible from our seats than the harpsichord, so it played a more important role in the continuo, at least from our seats. The lutenist was really having fun, a joy that communicated through all the performers. One of the movements was a song for the lute and strings, and McDuffie pulled out a chair and sat down, stretched out his legs, and listened with a beatific smile on his face.
The individual movements were very dramatic, with the standing orchestra's rhythmic swaying keeping the overall mood light and upbeat. But a side effect was that they would finish a fast movement with a dramatic flourish, which elicited an enthusiastic round of applause. The program didn't break the concertos into movements (although I later gleaned from the notes that each concerto has three movements, fast-slow-fast), so I completely lost track of which concerto they were playing. I don't think it mattered to them, and contributed to the effect that this was more of a pop concert than a classical one.
If everybody was just out having a good time during the first half, the second half was more serious. Gone was the lutenist sidekick, leaving McDuffie alone on center stage. The auditorium did not use a spotlight, and since he was further forward as a soloist in the Glass work, his eyes were completely hidden in shade by the stage lights, which were all overhead. A tall man in black, with no eyes visible, suggestive of the uncanny in his Halloween evening performance! And even in his fast movements, Glass's music doesn't dance the same baroqueries, so the performers body language was more serious as well.
But as beautiful as the Glass concerto was, I missed a conductor, most noticeably during a fast passage in the first movement where the keyboard seemed a bit out of sync with the strings. The orchestra spent much more time making significant eye contact with each other than they did during the Vivaldi, which made me think they weren't entirely comfortable with the piece. Fortunately I never felt an uncertainty after the first movement, so maybe someone was having a bad night. The work is written for strings and synthesizer, but as far as I could tell the timbre of the synthesizer never changed. It sounded like an electric piano, and it was used for punctuation and rhythmic precision, the keyboard music that Glass has written since his earliest work.
Since the concerto has no cadenza per se, Glass wrote a prologue and three songs for solo violin, which can either stand alone or between each movement of the concerto. McDuffie has been playing this piece for a while, and his performance throughout had great depth and feeling. Glass has already released a recording of McDuffie and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop, who played the concerto's European premiere in April 2010. But this tour is a great chance to hear the work live, an unusual opportunity and a great concept. The remainder of the tour is on the US West Coast and then some dates in New England. I encourage anyone close to one of these shows to check it out.