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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 Vivaldi! Vibrant Concerti for Flute, Bassoon and Cello

Be prepared to be dazzled! Consortium Aurora Borealis has crafted a concert programme designed to delight and amaze! “Viva Vivaldi!”, an all-Baroque concert with an Italian theme, shows off the virtuosic dexterity and breadth of expression which the evening’s soloists will deliver.

We celebrate all things Venetian with vibrant concertos by the “Red Priest”, as Consortium in its 45th concert season returns to its tradition of an all-Vivaldi programme, back by popular demand. For many of our audience, according to past ballot question responses, Vivaldi’s music tops their wish list.

We present spirited concertos for flute, bassoon, and cello, with soloists Doris Dungan, Michael Quigley, and Peter Cosbey, backed by violinists Katie Stevens and William Sirois, violist Patrick Horn, double bass player Martin Blanchet, and myself, Consortium’s founding Artistic Director and programmer, on harpsichord. Doris and Peter are no strangers to Consortium, but this concert marks TBSO’s Principal Bassoonist Michael Quigley’s first appearance with the group. We also welcome William Sirois, the TBSO’s new Acting Principal Second Violinist to our string ensemble. Interestingly (and accidentally), all pieces but one are in minor keys. Although the music is by a single composer, variety is created through the use of diverse instruments, different in type and timbre.

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi, composer, virtuoso violinist, teacher, impresario, was born in Venice in March 1678, son of a barber who became a professional violinist and taught his son to play violin. He was celebrated throughout Europe during his lifetime, but fell into oblivion after his death. Vivaldi died impoverished in 1741 at the age of 63 in Vienna, to which he had moved in 1740, and where he was buried.

Known mainly for his “Four Seasons”, Vivaldi’s creative output nevertheless includes 46 operas, much sacred choral music (he was an ordained cleric, nicknamed “The Red Priest”, because of his hair colour), and over 550 concertos for a great variety of instruments. Most of his concertos were written for the violin, numbering 230, but next in line came the bassoon, at 39, followed by 28 cello concertos, all churned out for the young ladies of La Pietà, one of Venice’s four orphan-conservatories, where Vivaldi was maestro of violin as well as maestro of concerts.

After his music had fallen into oblivion, a discovery was made at a northern Italian monastery in 1929, bringing 300 concertos, 19 operas, and many other works to light. Performances held during the newly-created Vivaldi Week in 1939 ignited interest in his music, and in the mid-twentieth century modern scholarly editions of his works were compiled and published. The rest is history! Today, Vivaldi is ranked with Bach and Handel as a chief representative of High Baroque music, and his popularity is astronomical.

Katie Stevens, the TBSO‘s Assistant Concertmaster, leads the strings and also performs as one of the soloists in Vivaldi’s lovely three-movement chamber concerto in D minor, RV 96 (a concerto da camera), with the fascinating title of “Il Delirio Fantastico”, written for flute, violin, bassoon, and harpsichord. It is a real gem. All voices participate fully in the action, and the bassoon line is often more than a supporting bass part, engaging in lively rhythms at times. The last movement is especially virtuosic for the upper two voices, as flute and violin toss passages in rapid figuration back and forth. Such concerto-like activity is what raises the piece to being a type of concerto instead of just a trio sonata, which otherwise it somewhat resembles.

Doris Dungan, who has been appearing regularly with Consortium almost since its inception, performs two concertos for flute and strings, beginning with Vivaldi’s recently-discovered, exotically-named “Il Gran Mogul” flute concerto in D minor, RV 431a. It begins with a moderately-paced Allegro non molto, proceeds to a sensuous Larghetto slow movement, and concludes with an energetically-lively Allegro which begins with syncopated rhythm in the accompanying strings before the solo flute takes off with rapid notes. The transverse flute had become particularly popular during this time, replacing the recorder and edging upwards as a solo instrument, although never overtaking the violin as the favoured one in this role.

Like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, “Il Gran Mogul” was part of a set of four solo concertos, in this case, four national concertos named after the countries of India, France, Spain, and England. The other three flute concertos are lost. It is believed that the Scottish Lord Robert Kerr, who was a flautist, picked up the set as a cultural souvenir during a Grand Tour of the Continent in the 1730s, shortly after they were written. They remained in manuscript form and were never printed. Descriptive titles, as in this flute concerto as well as in the RV 96 chamber concerto, often boosted sales.

In Part Two of the concert Doris Dungan returns to perform the buoyant flute concerto Opus 10, No. 4. It is in Vivaldi’s standard Fast-Slow-Fast three-movement form, is written in the sunny key of G, and is the only piece on our programme that is in a major key. Its cheerful triple-metre first movement leads to a simple but lyrical middle movement, which brings out the liquid beauty of the tone of the flute. The final allegro is joyous and affirmative, bringing the work to a happy conclusion. It is one of a set of six concertos dating from around 1728, and Doris has performed all of them with us in the past.

One such occasion really stands out in my memory. In the 1980s Consortium was invited by Thunder Bay’s Alpini Choir to perform a concert with them. In fact, I just found the following about that occasion in an online article on Italian culture in Thunder Bay: “[The Alpini Choir] has given special concerts such as the remarkable performance during Italian Week with another well-known local music group, Aurora Borealis.”

What made it remarkable was that the audience, made up of Italians who might not have had that much exposure to Baroque music, rose simultaneously to their feet and broke into uproarious applause eight or more bars before Doris had reached the end of the last movement of her Vivaldi flute concerto, as they detected that the finish was on its way. It was like being at a soccer match! The energy and excitement was palpable!

We often hear many performances featuring the higher violins and flute in Consortium concerts. I therefore decided it was time to shine the spotlight on two low instruments, cello and bassoon, the latter being rarely heard on its own. These two are featured in four out of our seven solo concertos, as well as in one featuring both of them jointly. Michael Quigley joins Peter Cosbey in Vivaldi’s gorgeous double concerto in E minor, RV 409, for cello and bassoon, in which the two instruments are often heard playing expressively in strictly duo passages, without accompaniment.

This concerto starts off with a truly soulful, expansive melody played on the cello, with a relaxed countermelody sensitively played by the bassoon. There is no orchestra and no supporting harpsichord bass, just the two soloists. They are suddenly interrupted by an explosive entry by the strings, in loud, rapidly-repeated notes. The two unaccompanied solo instruments then resume their calm duet, with the cello part now more elaborate. However, they are dramatically interrupted four more times, and the movement concludes energetically. The following two movements similarly alternate duo and full ensemble, slow and fast section, and the last movement is particularly virtuosic for the cello. This is an amazing concerto!

The intriguing bassoon has a sounding length of 8 feet 4 inches, doubled back on itself. Unlike other winds, it’s played by all five fingers of both hands; thumbs operate up to a total of 12 keys or more; the left thumb alone operates nine! Its distinctive timbre can be warm, dark, and reedy, mellow and velvety, or penetrating and plaintive. The bassoon concertos exploit all registers of the instrument, from top to bottom, amply demonstrating its great versatility and virtuosic capabilities in the hands of the soloist.

We are delighted to welcome soloist Michael Quigley, who has selected two bassoon concertos which he especially favours. There are so many great pieces to choose from, and all were clearly written for virtuoso performers, but he narrowed it down. He was eager to seize the opportunity of performing Vivaldi concertos with a string ensemble. Michael begins with the Bassoon Concerto in E minor, RV 484, one of Vivaldi’s most popular. It starts gently, although it is marked Allegro poco. Right away the bassoon part alternates between flashy bits and lyrical lines.

The melody in the string ensemble at the outset is unusually in the second violin part, while the accompanying first violin part has quick 32nd notes beneath it. The lower strings and harpsichord continue in repeated 8th notes. When the solo bassoon enters after 12 bars, it picks up on the 32nd-note figuration. In the solo sections, the bassoon is accompanied only by harpsichord and cello; the double bass enters in the tutti sections.

Unlike some Vivaldi second movements in concertos, RV 484’s employs the strings in the tutti passages instead of just employing harpsichord and cello to lay down the supporting bass for the bassoon. However, as in the first movement, and the third as well, when the bassoon enters as soloist, the strings drop out, leaving only the keyboard and cello, until the ending, when the strings return. The third dance-like movement has some syncopation and runs in the strings. The bassoon engages in some lyrical passages but is basically virtuosic.

Michael’s second solo offering is Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto in A minor, RV 498, also a real winner! The solo part in the first movement engages in wide leaps and melodic sequences, with many quick notes. The middle movement moves to the new key of F major, and is lyrical and aria-like. There are some long-held notes from the strings before the bassoon enters. The soloist employs all registers of the instrument, from high to low, back and forth. Again, we hear some melodic sequences. The accompanying strings are quite unobtrusive. Here is one more Vivaldi concerto that does not rely solely on harpsichord and cello for accompaniment during the middle movement. It is good to have the strings involved as well. The final movement returns to the original minor key.

The solo cello concertos on our programme are of special interest, and Peter Cosbey, known for his passionate, dynamic, and brilliant performances, brings them admirably to life. He played Vivaldi’s concerto RV 424 in B minor five years ago at our special 40th Anniversary Concert, which was led by violinist Jeremy Bell, and it is appropriate that we now repeat it in our 45th Anniversary concert.

Cello Concerto in A minor, RV 419, is a particularly exciting work, one which Consortium performed years ago. It remains a favourite of mine. It has a certain awesome energy and verve. I especially love the effect of the sustained half-notes, descending by half-steps in the violins, over very short, sequentially-repeated rhythmic motifs in the other parts. The middle movement, with its slow, expansive, long-breathed melody, is quietly accompanied just by harpsichord.

After the calm of the Andante, the ensuing third movement bursts in, with its brisk 3/8 triple metre. It is built on an eight-bar repeated chordal progression, given forth by the bass and all the accompanying instruments, a “ground bass” compositional technique which is often used in the Baroque. Over that, the solo cello indulges in increasingly fiery and virtuosic acrobatics. The second violin lends excitement and a sense of urgency through its repeated 32nd notes in spots.

Peter Cosbey’s solo part is totally dazzling, with runs, quickly-repeated notes, big leaps, and continuous variations over the ground bass laid down. I deliberately chose this concerto to conclude our Vivaldi tribute concert because of the nature of the ending of its last movement, with its building intensity. Peter will perform it with his usual panache!

Vivaldi’s exuberant music is sure to please. It is marked by vivacity and verve, with strong rhythmic energy, yet also expressively emotive at times, especially in slow movements. Sudden dramatic outbursts, vigorous quick passages in unison, and changes in mood are common; dance-influenced rhythms abound. Such a programme is a particular joy to mount, and is always one of Consortium’s best-attended events.

Since the glorious city of Venice is being celebrated as much as Vivaldi, one of its most famous residents, a visual treat is being offered in an effort to tie the music to the fabric of the city itself. For almost 30 years, I have enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the magical city of Venice, the city of my dreams, capturing it in photographs with a great passion. I am very pleased to share my love for this special place as I transport the audience there through a stunning slideshow of some of my favourite spots.

I have presented this slideshow twice before, during two previous Vivaldi concerts, in 2018, when notoriously the lights went off and remained off citywide after the first 35 minutes of music, and 2019, when we revived the programme which had been aborted. The photos were projected prior to the performance, as people were assembling, but I decided to have them shown during intermission this year, regarding them as an integral part of my overall artistic presentation.

In honour of this celebratory concert, Consortium proudly flies the banner of the Most Serene Republic of Venice at the front, as we always do when Venetian music is on the programme. I picked up several of these in various sizes on my trips; they depict the winged lion of San Marco, the symbol of the City.

We hope that many members of the Italian community will attend this concert, which celebrates their illustrious musical and cultural heritage, but we encourage everyone to come out and support some of Thunder Bay’s finest local players, as we perform exciting music by one of Italy’s best-loved composers!

This concert is sponsored by the Leishman Family; it is presented in Memory of Dr. Donald M. Leishman, who had been a Consortium subscriber and an ardent lover of the music which Consortium Aurora Borealis gifts to the public.

In closing, I would like to encourage people to continue supporting Consortium Aurora Borealis by attending our concerts. I am delighted to say that I have already programmed our 2024 -2025 season, which will be our 46th! A highlight will be a concert of Baroque arias, many of them flashy, by Vivaldi, Handel, and others, sung by soprano Irina Medvedeva in March 2025. We are also thrilled to announce the return of the ever-popular Martin Blanchet Jazz Quintet.

More good news for our 46th: We are keeping our season passes at the same price of 7 concerts for only $150, $90 for students. Please check out our website for more information. Subscriptions are on sale as of now, at concerts, and will also become available online. We would love to see you!

In the meantime, two more concerts remain in our 45th season, and I draw your attention to the fact that the next one, “Fanciful Flutes”, has been moved to the following day, Sunday, April 21, because of a sudden, unavoidable conflict with a TBSO concert date. We conclude our season on Saturday, May 11 with the “Brilliance of Baroque Organ: Bach and Buxtehude”, with a distinguished special guest.

Wishing you all the very best, as usual!


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