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Seasons Come, Seasons Go

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C. Simpson, Seasons: Winter (inter alia), S. Watillon et al.

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Cage, Seasons, American Composers Orchestra. D. R. Davies

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A. Vivaldi, Seasons, Concerto Italiano, R. Alessandrini

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P. D. Q. Bach, Seasonings, Royal P.D.Q. Bach Festival Orchestra, J. Mester
The Folger Consort's annual New Year concert, in the crossing of Washington National Cathedral, is a pleasing way to break the holiday concert fast each January. After recent programs centered on Monteverdi (the 1610 Vespers, in 2010), Vivaldi (2009), Victoria (2008), Dowland and Bird (2007), and Palestrina and Monteverdi (2006), this year's program brought together three rather different cycles of pieces depicting the four seasons -- the omnipresent one by Antonio Vivaldi, introduced by excerpts from sets by English viola da gambist and composer Christopher Simpson (c. 1602-1669) and modern American composer John Cage. It was the Cage piece, a short ballet score, that determined the form of the concert, which presented the three works grouped together by season. Cage's first work for orchestra, premiered with choreography by Merce Cunningham in 1947, begins with winter and proceeds through spring, summer, and fall before returning cyclically to the winter music. That this program was presented in that very season was a satisfying alignment of life and art.

Cage completed two versions of the score, for piano and full orchestra, which Folger Consort director Christopher Kendall, Olin Johannessen, and others arranged for the same Baroque string ensemble required for the Vivaldi concertos, plus synthesizer and percussion. As is always the case with such a reduction, not everything from Cage's score could be incorporated, but the result was something even more ethereal and atmospheric than Cage's orchestration. Repetitive, quasi-dissonant washes of sound in a sort of Klangfarbenmelodie style, reminiscent of Webern but with a touch of Broadway, evoked a sort of meditative melancholy. This repetition of pre-determined musical ideas, which Cage called gamuts, created the harmonic stasis he so admired in the music of Erik Satie: not surprisingly, Cage indulged in no cheap references to Vivaldi's famous precursor, as Piazzola did in Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, for example. The longest movement, Summer, which Cage said was associated with preservation (following an Indian tradition of the cycle of the seasons), had a particularly nostalgic tone, the tinges of marimba and vibraphone sounding like a half-remembered steel drum or calliope.

A chamber-sized ensemble of violin, two viols, chamber organ, and theorbo played only the initial Fancy movement of each of the Simpson pieces, making a rather small sound for the cathedral's vast acoustic. Nothing about any of these little showpieces seemed overtly programmatic, but their contrasting sections of varied character made intriguing introductions to the more substantial Cage-Vivaldi pairings. What likely brought most of the albeit somewhat sparse audience to the concert, those overplayed Vivaldi concertos, was the least exciting part of the evening. Violinist Julie Andrijeski was more graceful than dazzling on the solo parts, with the cuckoo runs in the first movement of Summer and the double-stops in the first movement of Autumn going a little sour. She was at her best in the slow movements, mostly taken at brisk tempi but with stylistically tasteful ornaments added on repeats of the melody.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Folger Consort (Washington Post, January 10)
Likewise, the string ensemble played the descriptive possibilities of the concertos close to the vest, by comparison to the closest reading of the score's accompanying sonnets, by Concerto Italiano. Spring's dogs, summer's insects, and winter's cracking ice were all on the timid side, although Andrijeski's joke in the first movement of Fall, pretending to fall asleep before the return of the final ritornello, came directly from the sonnet. Harpsichordist Joseph Gascho took advantage of the largely static slow movement of the last concerto to add vivid figuration to the continuo part, one of the highlights of the evening.

This performance will be repeated this evening (January 8, 8 pm), in Washington National Cathedral. For its next program, Ecco la primavera, the Folger Consort joins with the vocal ensemble Trefoil (March 11 to 13).

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