The joys of Baroque music are truly a mixed blessing for orchestras in the 21st Century. The works of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, and dozens of lesser known composers, are immensely popular and admired by devoted listeners, yet their specific stylistic traits make them difficult to juxtapose on concerts with music from adjacent periods. One solution taken by orchestras is to devote a concert to all Baroque music. While Baroque aficionados love such programming, average concertgoers generally opt for more diversity. Another solution is to juxtapose Baroque works with contemporary ones that deliberately contrast, yet share certain elements of style—Bach and Philip Glass, for example.
The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, under resident conductor James Fellenbaum, took a third path in its concerts this weekend—concerts that were built around the amazing The Four Seasons of Antonio Vivaldi (Le Quattro stagioni), the set of four concertos for solo violin and orchestra that are as melodically familiar as any in the musical repertoire. Using a theme of Italian music that tells a story, the KSO paired the Vivaldi with Romantic era works by Rossini and Puccini. The KSO also broke The Four Seasons into two segments—“Spring” and “Summer” on the first half, “Autumn” and “Winter” on the second half. The result was a concert of delectable passions from the Puccini and Rossini works and delicious sublime subversion of Baroque stereotypes from Vivaldi. The mix, however—particularly with the Vivaldi being split—left one in a gray area as to the concert cohesiveness.
From the perspective of the individual works, though, the program was a truly captivating one. The appeal of The Four Seasons flows from its descriptive harmonic textures and melodies that Vivaldi imbued with a specific programmatic storyline. To that end, Fellenbaum and guest soloist Giora Schmidt collaborated on a performance that bristled with the delicious edge of tonal subversion that sets the work apart from drier territory in the Baroque era. While there were fleeting technical imperfections here and there, those instances seemed unimportant in the context of the work’s pushing and pulling against its Baroque restraints. Schmidt’s performance in The Four Seasons—even broken into two separated segments—was the essence of brilliant solo instrumental storytelling.
Fellenbaum opened the concert with a carefully detailed and energetically paced take on Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide. Following “Spring” and “Summer”, the orchestra moved on to Puccini’s Capriccio sinfonico, the young composer’s 1883 graduation piece from the Milan Conservatory. In many ways, this was the most successful of the evening’s counterpoints to The Four Seasons in that it was fresh to most listeners, yet it offered a familiar preview of passages the composer reused in La Boheme.
To open the second half, Fellenbaum moved into the mature operatic world of Puccini with the Act III Intermezzo of Manon Lescaut.
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was first published in a collection of 12 concertos titled “The Contest of Harmony and Invention,” an apt description of “Autumn” in F Major and “Winter” in F minor, the concertos which concluded the concert. Again, Schmidt and Fellenbaum created the perfect balance of icy dissonance and orchestral warmth.