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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

Viva l’Italia! Beauteous Music of the High Baroque

Consortium Aurora Borealis is very pleased to conclude the 44th season with its annual all-Baroque concert on an Italian theme. We celebrate the golden age of Italian string music through a programme of beauteous sonatas for one and two violins from the High Baroque, an era very dear to my heart!

As a treat, we’ll also hear a rarely-played but lovely cello sonata by virtuoso violinist and theorist Francesco Geminiani, performed by Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Cellist Marc Palmquist, as he breaks out of his basso continuo role.

Also appearing in a solo role are Katie Stevens, Assistant Concertmaster of the TBSO, and Christopher Stork, its Principal Second Violinist. They will be supported by myself, Elizabeth Ganiatsos, on harpsichord. The strings use Baroque bows for this concert, and we perform in a historically-informed manner, appropriate to the period and the repertoire. Our noble-toned two-manual harpsichord is a concert-quality instrument modelled after two instruments from 1768/1770 by Pascal Taskin (Paris), possibly the most famous of all 18th-century French builders.

Consortium is always happy to return to its musical roots, bringing you music of the Baroque. We now present instrumental chamber music spanning a 61-year period, from 1689 to 1750, written by composers born 77 years apart. Much thought goes into the crafting of a Consortium concert programme; historical perspective and common ties play a significant role.

Our theme is most fitting, as Italy was the birthplace of the violin; strings dominated the Baroque instrumental scene! Italian string virtuosi abounded, many of them also composers, as were the creators of this concert’s sonatas. The violin workshops of Stradivarius, Guarneri, and Amati remain legendary. Most fitting it is too, that our generous Concert Sponsor is the Institute of Italian Studies – Lakehead University, for which we heartily thank them! Viva l’Italia!

The programme includes three species of sonatas by Corelli, Vivaldi, Albinoni, Geminiani, Tartini, and Locatelli, who were themselves virtuoso violinists. In fact, Vivaldi, Tartini and Locatelli were the three greatest violinists before Paganini. Venice is represented by solo violin sonatas by ever-popular Antonio Vivaldi, known as the “red priest” for his hair colour, and by his lesser-known but admirable contemporary Tomaso Albinoni. The most prevalent chamber music during this time was the trio sonata. We include notable examples by Corelli (written both for church and court), Locatelli, and others. A short movement from a Domenico Gallo trio, previously attributed to Pergolesi, will be recognized as the opening to Stravinsky’s neoclassical ballet Pulcinella.

At this point, I would like to point out that the following notes are to a large degree specific to the music, and are given here to assist the listener in appreciating the works which will be heard. I suggest that you read these prior to the concert, and some more earnest people might possibly wish to search out YouTube recordings in order to make more sense of what is being said here. That is what I did when researching this blog! But please feel free to skim over the following pages. Sometimes I get rather technical, but that’s simply to offer programme notes. Nor can I give as much background info about the composers as I’d wish to!

We begin with Arcangelo Corelli, “the New Orpheus”, the “Prince of Musicians”, “Great Virtuoso of the Violin”, as he was referred to in the 18th century. He was considered the greatest living composer by many at the time, and exerted an enormous influence on the course of instrumental music, the development of the style of string playing, and the astronomic rise in popularity of the violin as the predominant, most prestigious solo instrument of the Baroque.

Corelli spent most of his life in Rome, initially having trained in Bologna, was feted by the aristocracy, cardinals, and royalty, and joined the service of the learned Queen Cristina of Sweden, a great patron of the arts, who had abdicated in 1654, moved to Rome, and established the Academy of Arcadia in her palazzo there, with Corelli as a member. He became her chamber musician and court composer, dedicating his Book I of trio sonatas to her.

Among Corelli’s distinguished pupils were Geminiani, Vivaldi, and Locatelli, whose works are included in our programme. Corelli’s reputation spread far beyond Italy. His four publications of trio sonatas, one of solo sonatas, and one of concertos (including his famous ‘Christmas Concerto’), with twelve works per set, were reprinted a great many times, by a variety of printers.

At least forty-two editions appeared by 1800 of his Op. 5 solo sonatas, composed one hundred years earlier, and one of which will be performed for us by Christopher Stork, using the ornamentations in the slow movements specially written out by Corelli as an example of how to improvise around a given part. It was unusual for music to remain current for so long, reinforcing its universal appeal which brought Corelli’s output such longevity and fame.

Corelli established the model for the trio sonata, with two types, ‘da chiesa’ and ‘da camera’; read more about these terms farther down. Their performance was not restricted to church or chamber, and many of the so-called church sonatas included dance movements. They were written for two melody instruments, usually violins in Italy at this time, or two other equally- paired instruments (Germany favoured including winds).

The upper parts move over a supporting bass line played by a keyboard, such as harpsichord or organ, with the left hand doubled by a bass instrument such as a cello. There are normally four players in a trio sonata, not three (even more, if a plucked, lute-like theorbo joins the continuo).

The right hand is improvised, in accordance with harmonic symbols or figures indicating the chords required, hence, the term ‘figured bass’, but also ‘basso continuo’, or ‘continuo’ for short, which refers to the function, not the instrument. I generally play off the single bass line, or from the full score, not from a written-out keyboard part. I make it up as I go, differently every time, taking my cue from the figures and from the surrounding parts.

Trio Sonata Op. 3, no. 3’s opening Grave is very calm and sonorous, with the violins interweaving and crossing parts, with chains of suspensions, a harmonic characteristic of Corelli’s. A short, lively, dancelike Vivace follows, with the violins answering each other, as we forget that this is a sonata da chiesa! A hauntingly beautiful, languorous Largo ensues, with more chains of suspensions, mellifluous lines, and the parts imitating each other over a slow descending basso line which moves sometimes in a repeated pattern.

The final, bright Allegro, with imitative counterpoint and more suspensions, also punctuates cadences with hemiola, a favourite Corelli device, shifting between triple and duple metre and slowing down the endings of phrases, to great effect.

Our next Corelli Trio, Op. 4, no. 2 in G minor, is really a Sonata da camera, but although it includes the dance movements Allemanda and Corrente, it is not as flagrantly dancelike as some. The slow Preludio employs a walking bass, underneath rich sonorities and the usual chains of suspensions. The dance movements that follow, separated from each other by a 5-bar Grave, are very short, light, and uncomplicated, each with two simple repeated sections.

However, it is his violin sonatas from his op. 5 that are of special interest, and regarded as a pinnacle of solo violin writing of that time. His twelfth is a set of 23 variations on La Folia, pre-dating Vivaldi’s by five years. We will perform No. 1, without cello, since the composer indicated it could be accompanied by cembalo (harpsichord) alone. Corelli’s style was refined, rich in harmony and texture, balanced, and although the range of his violin writing did not go very high up the fingerboard, unlike Vivaldi and Locatelli, these works remain challenging to perform.

Bear in mind that Corelli just indicated a skeletal violin and bass part, expecting the performers to improvise and embellish them, in accordance with the practice of the time. Movement 1 of this first sonata is quite ravishing, free and fanciful, alternating between slow and fast sections, the latter with rising arpeggiated chords in the violin. But it is the improvised ornamentation that really makes it!  It is also special to hear the sonority of Consortium’s magnificent harpsichord coming through, such a joy to play!

The next movement is both contrapuntal and energetic, with excitingly virtuosic writing. We hear double stops in the violin (two or more notes played at once), and arpeggiated 3-note violin chords near the end, very flashy! The following Allegro is a perpetual motion of sixteenth notes, with just start chords in the harpsichord. The Adagio is a lyrical triple-time, with vocal qualities, as was often the case with simple third movements in Baroque sonatas. An effervescent Allegro in 6/8 time brings this remarkable sonata to a close.

This sonata is such a contrast to the Corelli Trio Sonata da camera which precedes it in our programme. My plan was to group all the Corelli pieces together, but arrange those and the rest of the composition according to principles of contrast, with respect to style and texture. At the same time, all is ordered in accordance to key relationships, so that there is no tonal jarring to the ears as we move from one piece to another. There is rhyme and reason to the shape of the programme, which also starts with our earliest composer (Corelli) and ends with our latest (Locatelli). 

Vivaldi is the composer best known to our audience, partly because of Consortium’s tradition of all-Vivaldi concerts over the years. I am happy to tell you that we will revive that very popular tradition next season, on Saturday, March 18, 2024, with an exciting concert of Vivaldi concertos for flute, bassoon, strings, and harpsichord, with soloists Doris Dungan and Kristy Tucker. I encourage you to subscribe to our 45th Anniversary Season in order to enjoy this and six other fine concerts. Remember that people who sign up and pay by June 30 will have their name entered in a draw for a $75 gift certificate to Bight Restaurant and Bar!

To whet your appetite for future Vivaldi music, Katie Stevens performs his Sonata in A major, Op. 2, No. 2, an interesting work cast in the chamber sonata vein, ‘da camera’ as opposed to ‘da chiesa’ or church sonata. Such terminology applies to solo sonatas as well as to trios. All three movements are taken from dance suites. The initial Preludio e Capriccio, marked Presto, is capricious, starting with a rapid ascending flourish by the violin based on the chord of A major.

After a brief pause, the left hand of the harpsichord jumps in (there is no cello called for in this piece), with continuous broken sixteenth-note figuration in perpetual motion throughout. The violin plays a calmer tune over all that frenetic action. Two dances follow: a lively corrente, and after a short, emotive, recitativo-like bridge, a yet livelier Giga, which rollicks on gaily to the end.

Francesco Geminiani enriched the cello repertoire with his Op. 5 set of six imaginative sonatas, from which we will hear the loveliest, no. 6 in A minor, which falls into the four-movement sonata da chiesa pattern. It is a gorgeous work, with great expressivity, rich, mellow sonorities as the characteristic of the instrument are exploited. Marc Palmquist was very happy to make its acquaintance. The harpsichord continuo part is quite important, interacting with the soloist.

There is great variety of style and mood, from lyricism to a more energetic section with a bit of passion and fire. As well, there is a lightly lilting, dance-like movement in triple metre with a slower middle section which harks back to the sensitivity of French viola da gamba music. It offers the cellist lots of opportunity to shine. These sonatas deserve to become known.

Geminiani was regarded as a whimsical madman during his time. His 1751 treatise on the art of playing the violin summed up 18th-century Italian string technique, including a guide to ornamentation, so important in that era. Interestingly, Geminiani set quite a number of Corelli trio and solo sonatas, including La Folia, as concerti grossi for full string ensemble!

Tomaso Albinoni, son of a well-to-do Venetian printer of playing cards, regarded himself as a dilettante, composing independently, not out of necessity but to please himself. He did not seek out aristocratic patronages or court positions, remaining self-employed. Albinoni did not perform publicly on account of not joining the musicians’ union. We know him for his instrumental works: sonatas and concertos, but he composed around 80 operas, a good many of them being lost, despite having been performed in Venice. Albinoni was regarded as being on a par with Corelli and Vivaldi. His instrumental works were published in Italy, London, and Amsterdam, and were reprinted due to their popularity. Bach was familiar with Albinoni’s music, and wrote fugues on some of his themes.

Albinoni was a gifted melodist, and wrote in a refined manner, expressive, but not to excess. His instrumental works often partook of a vocal quality. A common trait, noticeable in our programme’s Sonata in E minor, Op. 6, no. 8, which Chris will perform, is that the opening Grave is marked by a cantabile violin line, clearly derived from opera arias. This movement is intensely expressive, and starts off over a chromatically-descending line in the basso. The piece is in the standard church sonata slow-fast-slow-fast form, but Albinoni incorporates stylized dance elements, especially in the second movement, an Allegro.

Let me next speak of a very significant figure in the violin world of the time, the last-born of the virtuosi figuring on our programme, one not as well known by today’s audiences, but gaining in reputation. Pietro Locatelli, the most daring, progressive, and influential of the virtuoso violinist-composers, was Tartini’s contemporary. He was best known for L’Arte del Violino, a collection of 12 violin concertos, which sold for the equivalent of a month’s wages. Locatelli provided twenty-four astonishingly difficult solo caprices, two for each concerto, in which he revolutionized violin technique, pushing it to the limit, as did Paganini in the early nineteenth century, with his 24 Caprices. The virtuoso was centre stage. Jeremy Bell performed one of these challenging concertos for Consortium in 2017.

We present two of Locatelli’s works on a lesser scale from that of his concertos, a trio sonata and a violin sonata. The former, Op. 5, no. 2 in E minor, follows the four-movement form used by Albinoni, but instead of alternating slow and fast, Locatelli uses two slower followed b two fast movements. He commences with a very short, 8-bar introductory movement, marked Largo, to be played slowly and in a broad manner. It consists solely of chords for everyone, separated by rests and pauses, which may be filled in with a few improvised violin notes.

A gracious, moderately-paced Andante movement follows, with syncopated, dotted figures throughout, and some use of triplets, in a somewhat style galante vein. Two cheery, spirited Allegro movements conclude this work. The last one, an up-beat dance in triple time, is marked by a perky dotted rhythm. In true trio sonata fashion the violins share material.

It is a different story with Locatelli’s violin sonata Op. 8, no. 2 in D major, in three movements like Vivaldi, with the emphasis on the quick movements, hence Adagio-Allegro-Presto. Here, we approach the nature of Locatelli’s violin concertos, but with cello-harpsichord accompaniment in place of a string ensemble. The calm of the slow, lyrical Adagio with its lovely and languorous harmonic changes is suddenly dispelled by the vivacity of the second movement, as it rushes along with dazzling speed and virtuosity.

Double-stops in the violin part, rapid sixteenth-notes even in the basso part, streams of triplets and sextuplets rapidly rising to the upper reaches of the violin’s range, all leave a very breathless impression. Next, the final movement continues with streams of quick triplets, with a very dance-like triple metre, with two short repeated sections, as is proper in such dance forms.

A big surprise ensues, with Locatelli’s insertion of a slow, lyrical Lento section in D minor, contrasting in all respects; key, speed, style, mood. But then we are back to the rollicking Presto, and all ends happily!

Locatelli certainly was a colourful figure, who performed at the Prussian court in a blue velvet coat with silver trim, wearing precious diamond rings and carrying a sword. It is said that he so charmed a canary by his playing that it fell off its perch. Contemporary accounts claimed that he never played out of tune, was described as an “earthquake”, and played ‘with so much fury upon his fiddle that he must wear out some dozens of bows in a year.” We saved him for last!

Although our concert has focussed on the sonata alone, and the various personalities associated with it, we trust that there has been sufficient variety to interest and delight you, and that some light has been shed on what was the chief form of chamber music during the Baroque era, the period which Consortium Aurora Borealis is most devoted to exploring.

It was my special privilege to craft this special programme honouring the enormous musical contribution made to the world by Italy and Italians.

Again, I exclaim “Viva l’Italia!” All Italians should feel very proud!

Many thanks for accompanying us on our journey, and we hope that you will travel with us for our next musical voyage, as we embark upon our glorious forty-fifth anniversary season in September 2023!


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