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Borealis Beat

A glimpse into the mind of our Artistic Director as she shares her knowledge and expertise on our music selections, the composers, artists, concerts, and more

Magic and Fire! The Italian Violin

Jeremy Bell always dazzles and mesmerizes! One cannot fail to fall under his spell!

We continue to weave a spell of musical magic for you, this time infused with a new level of spirit and energy, as virtuoso violinist Jeremy Bell returns for a 13th time, to take centre stage in the Baroque concert ‘Magic and Fire’.

Our special guest is always hailed with enthusiasm for his vibrant and engaging performances, and radiates a special energy, immersing himself thoroughly in the music. Jeremy Bell “agitates in the most intelligent and persuasive manner” (Toronto Star).

Our programme was specially crafted with Jeremy in mind. It features music from 17th and 18th-century Italy, and was performed live in St. Paul’s United Church, Thunder Bay, Ontario on November 30, 2019, during Consortium’s 41st concert season. We are delighted to share with you six short works drawn from the archival video which was recorded on that occasion. Jeremy is joined by violinist Katie Stevens, cellist Ella Hopwood, and harpsichordist/Artistic Director Elizabeth Ganiatsos. The string players are using reproductions of Baroque bows, and the French double harpsichord is a copy of an 18th-century instrument by Pascal Taskin from 1769/1770 (Paris). In honour of the inclusion of music written by Venetians, we have hung the colourful banners of the Most Serene Republic of Venice at the front.

Jeremy Bell is strongly connected both to our city, where he has a huge fan base, and to Italy. He writes: “I am so excited to return to Thunder Bay. I have made many friends here over the years; sharing this incredible Italian Baroque repertoire with the Aurora Borealis crowd is such a privilege. I have travelled to Italy on many occasions, performing in remarkable major historical sites restored to their original splendour; I revel in the history of this amazing culture, finding it utterly fascinating that we can visit in time through the music of the Italian Baroque.”  He hopes that you will enjoy this “magical night of Italian reverie!”

Jeremy and Elizabeth arranged to meet up in Venice in July 2009; they had the honour of playing Baroque music in the glorious Basilica of San Marco during Vespers, surrounded by the glimmering gold mosaics. They also performed a duo concert in a late-Renaissance church adorned with paintings by Tintoretto; the organ used was an 18th-century historic instrument. This was an amazing moment for both; it provided the inspiration for continued musical collaboration, and brought to life the majesty, beauty, and ideals of the Italian Baroque.

This experience further cemented the musical bond between these two enthusiastic musicians; Jeremy had already performed five times in Thunder Bay, both as soloist and as member of the Penderecki String Quartet, but it was clear that he had to return, and we are the luckier for this! Consortium Aurora Borealis has already engaged him to appear during our next two seasons!

‘Magic and Fire’ commences with 17th-century works from Northern Italy by Biagio Marini, Marco Uccellini, and Antonio Bertali, early virtuoso violinist-composers who developed a more idiomatic, technically demanding style of playing, with an expanded expressive range. Included too is a lively work by Neapolitan composer Andrea Falconieri, who worked in Parma, France, Spain and Genoa, returning to a court appointment in his hometown late in life.

An interesting connection with our present Covid-19 scourge presents itself. Our first four composers were all alive during the terrible bubonic plague of 1630-1631 in Italy, which killed 61% of the population of Verona (33,000 out of 54,000), and 46,000 or nearly one third of the population of Venice. The little-known Verona-born Bertali escaped the plague, leaving home for the imperial court of Vienna in 1624 at the age of 19 as one of the many transplanted Italian musicians engaged by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, a great patron of the arts. He was highly-enough regarded that he was asked to write a Requiem Mass for the Emperor, and composed music jointly for a spectacular equestrian ballet (yes, with horses, in vogue at that time), to be performed at wedding festivities. A contemporary declared him to be “valorous on the violin”. He is primarily known today for his instrumental ensemble sonatas.

Marini, composer of innovative string music, moved from Brescia to Germany in 1623. Our piece dates from 1626, just before the plague began. He returned briefly to northern Italy after the plague had ended, thus avoiding its ravages, and died in Venice, where he had once worked at San Marco. Priest-violinist-composer Uccellini started his career in the late 1630’s, after the plague had abated.

However, out of our four 17th-century composers, there was one casualty. Falconieri succumbed to the later Neapolitan plague of 1656, along with half the city’s population (150,000 to 200,000 deaths). The surrounding Kingdom of Naples fared worse, with 1,250,000 casualties. A scenario familiar to us caused the plague to spread throughout southern Italy despite measures to restrict people’s movements. Only forcible quarantine eventually stopped its course, a lesson for us.

We now return to the music which you will hear. On a personal note, I wish to point out that the opening work by Marini was the very first piece that Jeremy and I ever tried out back in 2002, in preparation for his Thunder Bay debut, and from the first notes I was electrified, overwhelmed by the style, the sonority, and the ease of performing with such an inspiring artist. It was a most uplifting experience, which blew me away. Every musical collaboration with Jeremy is a thrilling moment!

A common thread unites four of our six works; they are all composed over a simple repeated harmonic pattern or formula laid down in the bass, much in the way of certain modern pop songs.

All evolved from early dances and were passed down through history, forming the basis of many musical works, both notated and improvised. Uccellini’s trio is based on the rustic Bergamasca dance, associated with buffoons and named after the town of Bergamo. It is built over a basic I-IV-V-I chord progression. The ciaccona (Italian version of the French chaconne) is based on the only slightly longer I-V-VI-IV-V, and the Folia melody is constructed upon a supporting bass pattern of eight notes. The harpsichord, joined by the cello, articulates the ostinato bass line of the two ciacconas at the outset before the other instruments enter, in accordance with common practice.

Baroque performers were expected to improvise. Only the bass line, along with the implied harmony through figures indicating chords, is given for the harpsichordist, and you will notice that the keyboard part changes in accordance with the desired mood, the rhythm even smacking of Spanish flamenco on occasion. The right hand makes up a part as the music moves along. The violinists are free to improvise as much as they wish, and in the absence of expression marks may devise their own interpretation, amply demonstrated by Jeremy in Vivaldi’s La Folia, and copied instantly and instinctively by Katie.

Elements of toe-tapping dance were common, evidenced in the two ciacconas, Falconieri’s example, joyful, strongly rhythmic, and thoroughly engaging, makes one smile. Bertali’s is improvisatory, full of fancy and delight. Bell works himself up into a frenzy near its end, with very vigorous bowing. At one spot, it rather sounds like hoedown music!

Consortium’s all-Vivaldi concerts are legendary; while ‘Magic and Fire’ includes music by four other composers, the ever-popular Venetian Vivaldi, known as “the red priest” for his hair colour, is represented by two works. One, the cheery, energetic first movement of Trio Sonata in F major, RV 68, treats the violins as a duo, as they imitate each other, accompanied very simply by sparse, basic chords on the harpsichord. The piece sounds rather like an exercise in places.

The second is Vivaldi’s famous ‘La Folia’ (“madness”), his single-movement Trio Sonata in D minor, Opus 1, No. 12, written in 1705 for two violins and continuo. It is one of his most gripping works. Consortium has previously performed this piece, always a favourite, on several occasions, including with Jeremy Bell, who displays his total mastery of his instrument.  In the current video, Jeremy had already cast off the formality of his jacket, the better to tackle the technical demands of the preceding work on the concert, Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill’ Sonata, whose pyrotechnics caused the virtuoso’s shirttails to work themselves loose! At the close of our 2018-19 season our expanded string ensemble, led by Jeremy, performed two Folia-based concerti grossi, one by Geminiani and the other a reimagined, contemporary version by local violist-composer Patrick Horn, commissioned specially for Consortium’s 40th anniversary.

Vivaldi’s La Folia is the definite highlight of our Magic and Fire concert! The piece commences with the stately Sarabande-like eight-note Folia theme, which is both melodic and harmonic. Nineteen 16-bar variations in triple metre follow, composed over the repeated harmonic progression associated with the melody. But despite the rigidity of this framework, there is an enormous variety of figuration, rhythmic motives, bowing styles and special effects. La Folia, also called “Folies d’Espagne”, derives from an old Hispanic dance of increasingly wild abandon. In one variation near the end Jeremy takes the liberty of throwing in ricochet bowing, a much later technique, imitating the spirit of a castanet-accompanied Spanish dance. This is by no means a tame, boring performance!

The violinists sometimes answer each other, tossing figures back and forth, interweaving their parts, sometimes playing in parallel thirds, sometimes on offbeats. Katie Stevens, Assistant Concertmaster of the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra, is well matched with Jeremy, and responds sensitively and flexibly to his lead. The harpsichordist is playing off an 18th-century facsimile of the single cello line, but if one listens carefully to that part, one will hear the subtleties and adjustments to the mood and style set by Jeremy and projected by the violinists. The keyboard part becomes ornamented and strummed in the slower, gentler sections and more intense in the dynamic variations.  There is an amazing expressive range, with sudden changes of mood between sections, as brisk, animated passagework sometimes lead into calmer lyrical sections. Much idiomatic string writing is displayed throughout; even the cellist, whose part is not rigid, participates briefly in the virtuosity.

Jeremy fairly dances throughout, complete with leaps and fancy footwork, a joy to watch! It is he who with his exuberance, spontaneity, creativity, energy, and passion drives not only this whole piece, but also the entire concert. The fiery ending is one of utter drama. The musicians received a well-deserved standing ovation, with uproarious applause! La Folia builds with frenetic excitement towards the end, even verging towards the feverish, as the performers go into high gear, carrying the audience with them. The music sizzles, and sparks fly, providing a truly rousing finale to a magnificent and memorable evening of Magic and Fire!


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