For those in attendance who were more used to hearing Antonio Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" played in the style of elevator music, this past Wednesday's Savannah Music Festival performance of the "Summer" and "Winter" movements at the Telfair Academy was a revelation.
Violinist/associate artistic director Daniel Hope introduced the works -- actually the finale of a great Baroque program which was also the North American debut of the European ensemble L'Arte del Mondo -- by describing Vivaldi as a "red priest" with flowing scarlet locks, a "rock star" who "terrified" audiences with his passionate virtuosity on the violin, backed by a group of attractive young girls from the orphanage he ran.
And Hope immediately set about doing his best Vivaldi impression/interpretation, his own reddish hair flopping around as he kinetically and masterfully channeled the Italian maestro in a finger-flying performance which, while not exactly terrifying, was certainly rapturous in its total focus, intensity, and sensitivity.
(If it can be said that a classical violinist can "shred" anything, I'll go ahead and say it now: Dude was straight shredding.)
Unlike Vivaldi, Hope wasn't backed by a group of beautiful young women (though L'Arte does feature several attractive and quite skilled female musicians). But L'Arte del Mondo matched Hope's intensity with a sweeping attack on these seminal works which are so often, and so inexplicably, bled of their innate and undeniable passion.
(Not only was this show L'Arte's U.S. debut, it was also the first time I've seen a Music Fest performer Google something on his iPhone onstage, as Hope did in reading aloud the sonnets Vivaldi wrote to accompany "The Four Seasons.")
I've been enjoying Hope's Savannah Music Festival performances for years, and it's been a real treat to experience his own evolution as a performer. While he's always been a rare talent, this year's edition of the Festival sees Hope clearly in greater control of his powers and his technique than ever before.
Hope pointed out to the audience the difference between his own "modern" style violin -- itself nearly three centuries old -- and the even more ancient period instruments of L'Arte del Mondo. This difference is not only one of technical specs, but of playing technique as well; Hope's more expressive and frequent vibrato was a helpful contrast to L'Arte's more period-specific and much more minimal vibrato.
Indeed, as expert as L'Arte del Mondo is in the area of Baroque interpretation, Hope's presence during the Vivaldi and the Bach double violin concerto in the first half of the program noticeably caused them to raise their own game.
Hope introduced that instantly recognizable BWV 1043 composition as "the greatest piece ever written" (a description that, despite its essential accuracy, he diplomatically walked back later in the evening). As soon as the opening notes of that familiar, uplifting Vivace rang out, the audience knew this was no garden-variety performance of a Bach chestnut.
With L'Arte's crisp but eloquent bowing carrying that inexorable rhythm, Hope explored the full compass of this brilliant marriage of mathematical perfection and spiritual yearning.
While no portion of this concert could be called unsatisfying -- even the little pair of Mozart Divertimentos were delightful, if inconsequential compared to the rest of the program -- there was the ongoing issue of Lowcountry humidity and its effect on these period wooden instruments and the gut strings used in this evening's performance.
During the first half of the concert -- with L'Arte's instruments having literally just gotten off a plane from Europe not much longer before -- there was a noticeable pitch problem. It was to be expected given the climatic conditions and the extraordinary number of musicians (up to 13) onstage at any given time, but slightly distracting nonetheless.
However, these experienced players clearly addressed the issue during intermission, and the Mozart piece which opened the second half was crystal-clear and in perfect tune, as was the ensuing Vivaldi firestorm that wrapped up the evening and garnered Hope and L'Arte Del Mondo an extended and well-deserved standing ovation.
On a non-musical note, I was personally somewhat horrified at the casual attitude of some of the patrons toward the priceless artwork on the walls of the Telfair Academy.
I saw one father carry his young son, who was waving around a toy, within inches of the iconic "Black Prince of Crecy" painting on the north wall. I saw other patrons come within moments of actually leaning on some works as they chatted during intermission.
The Telfair's collection of visual art is just as much our cultural legacy as the fine performances at the Savannah Music Festival. Let's respect it all!