Later this week, the Firebird Chamber Orchestra will take up the mantle of The Four Seasons, Antonio Vivaldi’s deathless quartet of violin concerti that routinely rank at the top or very near it on those every-so-often lists of the world’s favorite classical pieces.
Despite its enormous familiarity to one and all, I don’t recall offhand the last time all four pieces were played back to back in concert hereabouts, as the Firebird will do in three separate concerts starting Friday. And they were conceived as a unit, with sonnets written by Vivaldi himself, so playing them this way is a helpful way to hear all the music in context.
Later on this year, the orchestra — which is the chamber group of the Seraphic Fire choral ensemble – will begin a three-year project in which it will play all six of the Brandenburg Concerti of J.S. Bach. They will start in late February with the Second Concerto (in F, BWV 1047), and on the same program include another Bach work with a prominent trumpet part, the Cantata No. 51 (Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51), featuring soprano Kathryn Mueller.
Both these programs remind me that familiar is not always familiar. We have heard the Vivaldi so many times in casual contexts, and several of its melodies and passages are so instantly memorable, that we think we know these pieces. But what happens in situations like this is that the details of the works escape us as they go by, and we hear only the most prominent moments.
For example, one of the things I heard afresh, as it were, while listening to the Winter concerto was the brutality of those opening trills against the harmonies; at least, that’s the way Concerto Italiano plays it on a YouTube performance I chose at random to help make this point. Here, the group practically savages each chord as it builds slowly into that famous kickoff before the repeated-note chord progression that everybody knows.
Part of it is just good tone-painting, a technique much beloved of the Baroque. The sonnet lines that go with that movement are as follows:
Aggiacciato tremar trà neri algenti Al severo spirar d’ orrido vento, Correr battendo i piedi ogni momento; E pel soverchio gel batter i denti
… which one site translates as:
Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds; running to and fro to stamp one’s icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.
(Sounds like all of us South Floridians in recent days.) Well, those short, brutal, shivering chords do reflect what the words tell us, and you can really hear it when you compare the text and the music. It helps to remember that the sheer power of a catchy tune or series of chords can overwhelm the subtler details in the music.
Which is why I welcome a chance to hear The Four Seasons anew as it’s played live, and maybe this time get closer to hearing everything that the composer had in mind.
(The Four Seasons can be heard at 7:30 Friday at First United Methodist in Coral Gables, at 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal in Fort Lauderdale, and at 4 p.m. Sunday at Temple Emanu-El on Miami Beach. Tickets are $35. Call (305) 285-9060 or visit www.seraphicfire.org.)