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Europa Galante Gets In On It

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Il diario di Chiara, Europa Galante, F. Biondi
(Glossa, 2014)
Antonio Vivaldi worked for much of his career at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, the Venetian home for abandoned children. Unwanted babies, both boys and girls, left at the Pietà were illegitimate or abandoned for other reasons, sometimes brought there by their mothers or rescued by good-hearted Venetians. Only the girls raised in the Pietà had the option of living there for the rest of their lives, if they were talented musicians and wanted to have a musical career playing in the orchestra or singing in the chorus. The place functioned almost like a convent, led by a "prioress" elected by the residents, but its rule was musical rather than monastic.

The ingenuity of Il Diario di Chiara, a recent disk by the historically informed performance ensemble Europa Galante, was to trace the life of the Pietà not through one of its composers, but through one of its wards. The woman known only as Chiara, or Chiaretta, played the violin, viola d'amore, and organ, and Fabio Biondi has put together the scores of pieces that she played, that were composed for her, and for which she wrote cadenzas. It is a glimpse inside the musical life of the place, which nearly everyone who visited Venice as a tourist in the 18th century visited to hear the performances. Jean-Jacques Rousseau spent an eventful eighteen months in Venice, of which he gives a well-detailed account in Book VII of his autobiography, The Confessions. He describes not only hearing the Sunday Vespers services at the Pietà but actually meeting the performers, who were normally hidden from the audience's view by a grill:

M. le Blond presented to me, one after the other, these celebrated female singers, of whom the names and voices were all with which I was acquainted. Come, Sophia,- she was horrid. Come, Cattina,- she had but one eye. Come, Bettina,- the small-pox had entirely disfigured her. Scarcely one of them was without some striking defect. Le Blond laughed at my surprise; however, two or three of them appeared tolerable; these never sung but in the choruses; I was almost in despair. During the collation we endeavored to excite them, and they soon became enlivened; ugliness does not exclude the graces, and I found they possessed them. I said to myself, they cannot sing in this manner without intelligence and sensibility, they must have both; in fine, my manner of seeing them changed to such a degree that I left the house almost in love with each of these ugly faces. I had scarcely courage enough to return to vespers. But after having seen the girls, the danger was lessened. I still found their singing delightful; and their voices so much embellished their persons that, in spite of my eyes, I obstinately continued to think them beautiful.
Rousseau was at the Pietà in 1741, when Chiaretta was in her 20s and already widely known for her playing, although Rousseau does not mention her. As this program traces, heard live on Sunday evening at Shriver Hall, Chiaretta had a long and distinguished career in Venice, serving as director and teaching her own students until her death at the age of 73. As experienced at the last local appearance of Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante, at the Library of Congress in 2008, the details of the performance were not always in line. Mostly this was due to Biondi's many turns as soloist, best in the striking concerto by Antonio Martinelli, for Chiaretta to play on the viola d'amore, which he played with the cadenzas written by Chiaretta herself. It was hard not to think, given some of the problems that Biondi experienced here and there in the other concertos, by Martinelli and Vivaldi, that perhaps it is time for him to give some solo opportunities to the younger violinists in his ensemble.

Other Reviews:

James R. Oestreich, Europa Galante Tells the Story of a Musical Orphan in ‘Chiara’s Diary’ (Washington Post, January 18)

Tim Smith, Europa Galante explores 18th-century music written for Venetian orphanage (Baltimore Sun, January 19)

Harry Rolnick, Rockin’ And Rollin’ With The Orphanage Gals (ConcertoNet, January 17)
Europa Galante as an ensemble has a sort of default sound, elegant and smoothed out, almost lacking any affect in a strange way. This produced some lovely moments, especially in the slow movements, where the ensemble was often thinned down to a smaller number of instruments, as in the combination of violin solo, pizzicato strings, and theorbo in the slow movement of Vivaldi's G major sinfonia (RV 149), which sounded like a big mandolin. At the same time, a sense of rule-bound homogeneity crept in to many of the pieces, which made the rare standout, like the ground bass variations in the middle movement of Vivaldi's D major violin concerto (RV 222), a welcome relief from a slightly disappointing sameness. An encore, the violent hailstorm movement from Vivaldi's "Summer" concerto, provided a last frisson of excitement.

The next concert on the Shriver Hall series will feature violinist Michelle Shin (January 30, 3 pm), in a free concert at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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