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Venice Comes to Washington

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Vivaldi: Concertos and Sinfonias for strings

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Concerto Veneziano (Tartini, D. 96)

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Vivaldi, Concertos
With the prospect of a shutdown of the U.S. government narrowly avoided on Friday, the National Gallery of Art remained open for the concert by the Venice Baroque Orchestra on Sunday night. One of the leading historically informed performance ensembles, the group has been coming more to this side of the Atlantic, to Strathmore just last fall and to the Library of Congress in 2007. The echo chamber of the NGA's West Garden Court was not the best acoustic for their rhythmically taut, sharp-edged approach to the Italian Baroque concerto, but their performance of seven such pieces (.PDF file) -- a wag might add "interchangeable" -- was a fitting tribute to the museum's Venetian-themed exhibit on Canaletto and his contemporaries.

The group has already recorded a lot of Vivaldi concertos, but this well will not run dry for a while, even though the opening Sinfonia in A major sounded a bit too much like garden-variety Vivaldi. The other selections that did not feature a soloist were more pleasing, especially Baldassare Galuppi's Concerto a Quattro in G minor, which featured the contrast of a solo group (two violins, viola, and continuo) with the tutti. With a group composed only of strings -- six violins, one each of viola, cello, and violone -- it was otherwise up to the continuo group of harpsichord and the smiling, colorful Ivano Zanenghi on lute to provide diverting color.

For the works with soloist the group brought along its regular collaborator, violinist Giuliano Carmignola, who is guaranteed to add a dynamic, even diabolical flair to these showpieces. Sour tuning issues spoiled the first of these pieces, Giuseppe Tartini's A major violin concerto, D. 96, as Carmignola, perilously flat, slashed and scraped his way through the piece, here as elsewhere attacking the fingerboard with such force that it made some popping, percussive sounds. In the three Vivaldi concertos on the second half, he was erratic at times but his sudden outbursts, punctuated by stamps of his foot, kept one guessing. The E-flat concerto ("La tempesta di mare," RV 253) was the most heart-stoppingly virtuosic, with Carmignola chewing up the scenery and the cello and violone rumbling like thunder in the closing Presto.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Venice Baroque Orchestra at the National Gallery of Art (Washington Post, April 11)

Michael Huebner, Venice Baroque Orchestra goes beyond history, to pure music (Birmingham News, April 3)
The G minor concerto, RV 332, had the more serious, luscious sound, especially in the first two movements, while the last, phrased sort of like a fandango, rattled along at a devilish pace. Perhaps finally warmed up, Carmignola ducked and skittered through the final piece (D major, RV 210), backed up only by lute and pianissimo strings in the lovely second movement. Encores included the blistering final movement from the summer concerto of the Four Seasons, making for one hell of a hailstorm, and one another fast movement, as yet unidentified.

Head back to the National Gallery of Art for a lunchtime concert by violinists Christian Tetzlaff and Antje Weithaas (April 28, 12:10 pm).

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