The English Concert
Harry Bicket, Artistic Director
Friday, November 19, 2021 at 8:00pm
(1648 – 1741)
Selections from L’Estro Armonico, Op. 3
Concerto No. 1 in D Major
Largo e spiccato
Concerto No. 2 in G Minor
Adagio e spiccato – Allegro
Concerto No. 3 in G Major
Concerto No. 8 in A Minor
Larghetto e spiritoso
Concerto No. 9 in D Major
Concerto No. 10 in B Minor
Largo – Larghetto
Concerto No. 11 in D Minor
Allegro – Adagio
Largo e spiccato
This program is approx. 90 minutes in length.
About the Program
An Introduction from Harry Bicket
The success of Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico — 12 concerti featuring different combinations of string soloists — in the early 18th century is as much about the way it reached such a wide audience as it is about the music itself, brilliant though it is. It was written at the beginning of commercial music printing, when composers who were savvy enough could really capitalize on the new technology and monetize what had previously been a poorly paid profession. L’estro was infinitely adaptable: it could be played by 10 players or 100; you could buy just the violin part, or pay a bit more to get the bass part. It entered a much wider cultural world than the “classical” music of the day; it was performed in concert halls, but also pubs, on street corners, and in vaudeville shows. Handel and Bach both made arrangements of the concerti and borrowed themes for movements in other works. There were even arrangements made for Benjamin Franklin’s new glass harmonica!
L’estro was not all new music; some of the concerti were ones Vivaldi had written earlier, and some were written especially for the new collection. It seems clear that Vivaldi wanted to get the very best of his work published, so the consistently high level of these concerti is on a different plane to some others of his concerti, where one can feel he was treading water.
The collection of 12 concerti follows an interesting pattern: four sets of three concerti, each set having a concerto for four violin soloists, followed by a concerto for two violinists, and concluding with a solo violin concerto. They were never intended to be played in a specific order, but Vivaldi clearly wanted each concerto to have its own sound world and color.
This is brilliantly inventive music — touching, virtuosic, and concise. Vivaldi didn’t have such a wide harmonic or rhythmic palette as a composer like Bach, but what he does with his material is astonishing. The simplest harmonic shift suddenly can make a surprising impact, as can an unexpected turn of texture. This is very direct, heart-on-sleeve music, which is why it is so appealing and the perfect way to celebrate coming out of the darkness of the last years.
— Harry Bicket
More about L’estro armonico
In the early 18th century, word about Antonio Vivaldi’s creative talent was already trickling out of his native Venice, as foreign visitors brought back glowing reports about the extraordinary music they heard him performing with his orchestra at the L’Ospedale della Pietà, a charity school for orphaned and indigent girls. However, when the firm of Roger in Amsterdam published his L’estro armonico (“Harmonic Rapture”) in 1711, his international fame exploded like a tsunami sweeping over Europe. These 12 concerti established a new template for concerto writing that his fellow composers eagerly copied. Using only a small string ensemble and varying numbers of soloists, Vivaldi’s boldly conceived concerti demonstrated how both high energy and the expression of a wide range of emotional states could be generated using very modest means.
Vivaldi’s popularity continues unabated in the 21st century, and the renowned scholar H.C. Robbins Landon has suggested why. He comments that the composer’s appeal may lie partly in the fact that his music does uniquely match our time. He writes of the Italian’s “wiry nervous sound”: a kind of nonstop energy and vivacity rooted in rhythm that was unmatched by any other Baroque composer and seems to mesh perfectly with our own driven pace. However, that description primarily applies to the fast opening and last movements of Vivaldi’s three-movement form. L’estro’s slow middle movements deserve special attention, too, because they reveal a deeper side of the composer’s art in music of ravishing beauty, conjuring emotions both sorrowful and contemplative.
The English Concert will open the concert with the first three of L’estro’s concerti, which present the full sequence of textures from the intricate polyphony of four soloists to the greater intimacy of two soloists and finally to the bravura virtuosity of a single violinist.
One of the features of Vivaldi’s concerto formula is the use of a recurring ritornello theme for the full ensemble, which typically opens the movement and links together the freer passages for the soloists. However, in Concerto No. 1 in D Major, he is already experimenting with this, and the four soloists enter first, like fluttering birds alighting one by one on a branch. They establish an appealing lightness and airiness for this bucolic opening movement, which closes in rapturous violin birdsong. Even more arresting is the Largo spiccato slow movement — spiccato referring to the technique of striking a note lightly with the bow, then immediately releasing it. That intensifies the operatic drama of the solemnly descending ritornello theme in the ensemble, which grounds the shimmering, awestruck passages for the soloists.
Concerto No. 2 is in G minor, a key considered dark and disturbing in the 18th century. Vivaldi seizes on that to make some striking changes to his opening movement, which opens not with the usual Allegro but instead with a dramatic slow introduction. The sharp, short attacks of spiccato bowing appears again, giving the opening ritornello an intense, icy quality reminiscent of “Winter” in The Four Seasons. This eventually melts into an impetuous Allegro releasing the two soloists. Set in the style of the slow, courtly sarabande dance, the second movement contrasts the weight of the ensemble ritornello against the delicate echo effects of the soloists.
The ebullient Concerto No. 3 is in G Major, a brightly colored key traditionally associated with joy and the outdoors. This inspired a high-spirited work featuring the virtuosity of a single soloist. The Largo second movement wins the prize here with its undulating lyrical song for the violin, urged on by the ensemble’s vigorous interjections. The final movement has a wild forward drive that shows off the violinist’s technical brilliance and closes with delicious syncopations.
For two solo violins, Concerto No. 8 in A minor is one of Vivaldi’s finest concertos by any measure. Its first movement boasts an especially strong and varied ritornello for the ensemble, and the exquisite solo episodes imitate chirping birdsong. The Larghetto slow movement is a ravishing extended melody for the two soloists poised over a stately repeating pattern in the orchestra. In the final Allegro movement, listen for the violin’s beautiful countermelody soaring against the agitated chatter of the other instruments.
For solo violin, Concerto No. 9 in D Major is an elegant and aristocratic piece with an ideal balance between ensemble and soloist throughout. Its sound world is full-toned and richly colored. Poignant harmonic shifts give exceptional nuance and depth to its lovely Larghetto slow movement.
The most spectacular of them all, Concerto No. 10 in B minor for four violin soloists, is the most often performed and was even transcribed by J.S. Bach for four harpsichords. As mentioned earlier, a dynamic use of rhythm is central to Vivaldi’s style. This Concerto demonstrates a technique of layering multiple rhythmic patterns together so they create dueling cross accents and phenomenal excitement. In the fast outer movements, the soloists frequently execute four separate patterns simultaneously, an effect we hear in the very opening bars. Even the central section of the grand French-overture slow movement features a stunning passage of fast conflicting oscillations among the soloists.
Adding a role for a solo cellist to the two violins, Concerto No. 11 in D minor is a contrapuntal feast, full of innovations in form and instrumental textures. The two violin soloists leap into action immediately with a brilliant canon before the cello soloist introduces himself independently. Then the fast tempo unexpectedly slows, and the cellist leads off a marvelous fugue (a relative rarity in Vivaldi’s music) that mingles soloists and ensemble in scintillating counterpoint. In the slow movement, only one violin is on display, singing a poignant aria featuring beautiful chromatic shadings in its swaying siciliano melody. Once again, the texture changes, and the quick-tempo finale focuses on the solo trio in intricate imitative counterpoint.
— Janet E. Bedell
About the Artist
The English Concert
The English Concert is one of Europe’s leading chamber orchestras specializing in historically informed performance and has earned a reputation for combining urgency, passion, and fire with precision, delicacy, and beauty. Created by Trevor Pinnock in 1973, the orchestra is now under the artistic direction of Harry Bicket and principal guest Kristian Bezuidenhout.
The English Concert’s artistic partners reflect and enhance the ensemble’s pursuit of new ways to bring its music to life. Joyce DiDonato, Dame Sarah Connolly, Iestyn Davies, Alison Balsom, Trevor Pinnock, Dominic Dromgoole, Tom Morris, and many more have not only brought their extraordinary skills to individual projects but continue to help The English Concert to shape the way it performs.
One cornerstone of the orchestra’s annual cycle is its international Handel Opera tour. Blossoming from an ongoing relationship with Carnegie Hall, the itinerary now regularly takes in the Theater an der Wien, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the Elbphilharmonie and Barbican Hall, and the roster of great halls continues to grow. Meanwhile, its regular London series allows the musicians to explore a radically different path, presenting programs to its home audience that challenge and inspire the artists. The English Concert launched its partnership with Garsington Opera in 2019 with performances of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 and enjoyed its Summer 2021 season in residence with a production of Handel’s Amadigi.
Artistic Director & Harpsichord
Alfonso Leal del Ojo
Ismael Campanero Nieto
Harry Bicket, Artistic Director
Internationally renowned as an opera and concert conductor of distinction, Harry Bicket is especially noted for his interpretation of baroque and classical repertoire and since 2007 has been Artistic Director of The English Concert, one of Europe’s finest period orchestras. In 2013, following regular guest appearances for Santa Fe Opera, he became their Chief Conductor and in 2018 assumed the Music Directorship.
Projects with The English Concert in 2021 – 22 include tours to the U.S. and South America for Handel’s Alcina and gala concerts, in addition to their London season and recording projects. Bicket will also lead a new production of Handel’s Theodora at the Royal Opera House, featuring Joyce DiDonato and Julia Bullock. This will be followed by return visits to the Metropolitan Opera (Rodelinda), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and Santa Fe Opera.
In addition to his regular Santa Fe productions, recent North American seasons have included Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Canadian Opera Company. Symphonic guest conducting has included Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (including Cincinnati May Festival), New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Houston Symphony, Seattle Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, NACO Ottawa, Indianapolis Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, and Boston Symphony Orchestra. He has also led masterclasses with the Juilliard School.
European conducting has ranged from opera for Liceu Barcelona, Opéra de Bordeaux, and Theater an der Wien, to concert projects with Prague Philharmonia, RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Oslo Philharmonic, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, Bayerische Rundfunk, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.
This concert is made possible by generous support from the Howard & Sarah D. Solomon Foundation.
This concert was made possible, in part, by the Westchester Community Foundation, a division of The New York Community Foundation.
The Music Room theatrical lighting was a generous gift from Adela and Lawrence Elow.
No photography or video / audio recording permitted.
Silence all mobile devices and alarms.
Wear a mask unless eating or drinking.