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The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni), the best known compositions by Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (Italy, 1678-1741), are actually four violin concertos that were published as part of Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention) in 1725. The North Carolina Symphony chose to open 2021 with a performance of all four with Wesley Schutz, associate conductor, leading the string ensemble with principal second violinist Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky as soloist.
What makes The Four Seasons not only a popular composition, but also an important piece of music history, is that the publication of the score was accompanied by four sonnets (maybe written by Vivaldi himself), which the music depicts in some detail. This is one of the first examples of program music, that is, music that conjures up extra-musical experiences.
We hear portions of The Seasons so often and is so familiar, that it has become "elevator music" or background music for commercials. One forgets the virtuosity needed to perform the work until heard and seen live. And with great video and superb sound, the NC Symphony's production is a terrific way to re-engage with something that might have become stale.
Each "season" (concerto) is in three movements, fast-slow-fast; and the structure of each sonnet is also in three parts. Vivaldi took great care to match the music exactly to the description set forth in the poems: a wonderful blend of literature and music.
Joseph Peters, the symphony's associate principal oboe and English horn player, welcomed the on-line guests and provided some background about the works we were about to hear. He explained why the Seasons are so beloved and part of our collective consciousness. He also pointed out that Vivaldi wrote more than 200 violin concerti and that the composer was a virtuoso violinist himself. And the brilliant orchestration creates "effects ranging from gentle raindrops, pelting ice and snow, to languid summer heat, to thunderstorms, and everything in between."
The concert opened with "Spring," which is a joyous outpouring of optimism infused with dance rhythms. Wolborsky and the ensemble of 15 players (all wearing masks) jumped into the lively opening movement. The soloist provided elegant chirping bird sounds, intermingled with the rest of the ensemble. The slow movement contains the famous "barking dog," portrayed by a solo violist, in this case in the steady hands of principal violist Samuel Gold. Wolborsky warmly provided the lovely lyric tune. Throughout, the soloist and conductor Schutz paid fine attention to soft-loud contrasts.
The first part of "Summer" depicts oppressive heat with a minor mode and slow tempo. This breaks into a fast section followed by twittering of bird, brilliantly played by Wolborsky and the ensemble. In the slow second movement, a tired peasant is represented by a plaintive solo violin interrupted by furious sawing, describing lightning and thunderstorms, which carries over into the final movement.
"Autumn" finds the merry-making peasants happy in the harvest; the movement also provides more of a showcase for the virtuosity of the soloist. The middle movement is about sleep – slow and subdued. The finale is a folk dance about hunting with some "special" effects: plucking of strings perhaps representing the shots from guns.
Detached chords bring on the icy "Winter" in a minor key, frequently broken by strong winds illustrated by cascades of solo violin. Sparce textures further add to the coldness. The second movement, in a major key, feels the heat of the fire. The final movement returns the listener to frigid weather.
Through the entire Four Seasons, the texture of the music changes frequently: solo violin against full string ensemble, ensemble without soloist, solo in perfect synch with another violinist (Karin Strittmater Galvin), and solo violin with harpsichord (Beverly Biggs) and cello (Bonnie Thron). For the record, the soloist also changed her gown between each season.
The musicians sensitively responded to the leadership of Schutz; his unobtrusive conducting allowed flexibility for the soloist (and ensemble) to take some liberties with tempo, adding to the spontaneity of the performance. The strings of the North Carolina Symphony displayed good energy throughout. The entire concert was first-rate, a delight to see and hear.
Editor's Note: Violinist Simone Porter, previously announced as soloist, did not perform, and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, also previously announced, was omitted.