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The Eight Seasons

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
11/10/2010 -  
Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
Philip Glass: Violin Concerto No. 2 “The American Four Seasons” (NY Premiere)

The Venice Baroque Orchestra, Robert McDuffie (Violin and Leader)

R. McDuffie (©Christian Steiner)

Antonio Vivaldi and Philip Glass both suffer the same captious carping. ”The music,” say the cavilers, “all sounds the same.”

Vivaldi’s concerti do follow a template–but his Judith or the stunning arias from his operas show a truly inspired composer. Philip Glass does have the minimalist yellow star sewn on his shoulder, but operas like Kepler or Satyagraha merge intellectual, spiritual and musical elements for an entirely new form.

Last night, New York put the two composers together in “The Seasons Project,” combining the Vivaldi with a Philip Glass concerto, Commissioned by Toronto Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Aspen Music Festival and School, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,Carlsen Center at Johnson County Community College. The Vivaldi was played with a Venice-sized string orchestra from Venice, and Glass’s Second Violin Concerto was obliquely, enigmatically modeled on the Vivaldi piece. They were tied together by Georgia-born, New York resident Robert McDuffie, who leads the Venice Baroque Orchestra and plays a very mean fiddle. Specifically, a $3.5 million Guaneri del Gesù violin, once played by Paganini himself.

In the Vivaldi Seasons, Mr. McDuffie conceivably performed more like Paganini than today’s spate of perfect virtuosi. For one thing, he and his orchestra have moved around this continent the way Paganini toured through Europe. More important, he is very much the showman, doesn’t mind losing the occasional note or slurring the articulation, so long as he can play as fast as possible in the solo runs, and with as much vivid color as his splendid instrument will permit.

Initially, I had felt skeptical as this business-suited gentleman casually strolled around the stage, his 18 “backups” sometimes moving as well. But the beauty of his violin and his obviously brilliant technique quickly overshadowed our usual poetic or ruminative picture of Vivaldi.

Great paying usually has its own formality, but this violinist turned it into an enjoyable show. At times, Mr. McDuffie sat down, once to play a meditative Winter movement, and once to listen to lutenist Ivano Zanenghi, who played a solo usually taken by celli and basses.

It was a show of technique, but with all the danceable joy for which 18th Century technical concertos were made.

If Mr. McDuffie took familiar liberties with Vivaldi, his whole mood changed after the intermission for the 40-minute Glass work. After all, the composer was in the audience, and one does not take Mr. Glass’s notes casually.

Nor was it necessary, since the concerto was composed with the perfection one needs for these instruments, as well as a harpsichord synthesizer. Also, the 40 minutes of Glass’s Seasons seemed half the length, even shorter than the Vivaldi. Familiar as we are with Mr. Glass’s rhythmic techniques, his harmonic modulations, his often exotic melodies against a pulsing background, he can still turn out a piece of surprise and fantasy. At the very least, this Second Violin Concerto was highly likeable.

Then again, one must ask, “What was not to like? It was evidently written with Mr McDuffie in mind, for he was given no less than four solo cadenzas in between the four movements. It must have been very taxing for him to play, yet for us, they resembled nothing less than some Bach violin solos. The four became more complicated–going from one line to double-stopping–to the last. But they were each melodic, they were enjoyable more than breathtaking.

For the quartet of Seasons music, Mr. Glass gave us his version of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. He didn’t title the seasons, but allowed us to guess which seasons they were. Unlike Vivaldi, he didn’t have line-by-line poetry to follow, but simply followed his own heart.

For the record, I guessed that the four movements were Spring, Winter, Autumn and Summer, but my guest didn’t agree at all. This was fine. “My” Spring section was rather bland, temperate, a nice pairing of violin and orchestra. “My” winter was quite hibernal, a frosty solo against the murmuring orchestra

The third movement was played to a Baroque-disco beat, and swirled around with great joy. To fit the picture, I thought of swirling leaves, bonfires, rains and winds. But others might have seen this as “Winter” with snow flurries and raging storms.

The last movement had to have been Summer. Nor a torpid summer, but one of outings, river-trips, dancing and the joy of a community party where we all joined in the celebration.

Frankly, I think it unfair that Mr. Glass teased us this way. Instead of listening to the music and Mr. McDuffie’s wonderful playing, we were drawing Crayon pictures for ourselves. One day, Mr. Glass may reveal his little joke, so we can hear the music as music itself, revelling rather than guessing how the composer could summon up the seasons.

On the other hand, perhaps we should have ignored the entire climatic conundrum and listened to the music itself. This was not another Kepler or Einstein on the Beach. This was Philip Glass surveying the Age of the Baroque and easily transmuting it for himself.

The challenges were for him and his artists to worry about. For the audience, it was not challenging at all. It was simply an amiable and animated homage to autumns, winters, summers and strings.

Harry Rolnick



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