Light On Their Feat
Il Giardino Armonico braves storm and darkness to dazzle Carmel Bach fest crowd.
Thursday, March 8, 2001
That wild and crazy Baroque orchestra from Milan, Il Giardino Armonico, set its Carmel Bach Festival audience to stomping on the floor at Sunset Center last Sunday afternoon. Not content to merely dazzle the full-house crowd with breathtaking virtuosity, the 14-member group also chose to play that way in the dark.
To play uninterrupted with perfect ensemble in the dark? What''s next, a concert underwater? It almost came to that, thanks to a raging storm that shorted out the lights not once but twice and dumped enough rain to surround the refreshment kiosk at intermission with a virtually unbreachable moat.
Although the band uses Baroque instruments and performance practice, leader (and recorder soloist) Giovanni Antonini is a romantic elf at heart, given to flights of extravagant improvisation and opulent ornamentation. Sharply articulate and brisk in tempi, Il Giardino Armonico has sent shock waves of excitement through the community of Baroque-specialists.
Luca Pianca''s lute complemented the continuo bass line through a program of Vivaldi and Handel, plus C.P.E Bach''s Symphony No. 1, which stood up as a masterpiece ahead of its time. While the work contains all the elements of the classical sonata, they arrive as inspired slapstick, a zany, impulsive package of high vision and low comedy, worthy of big laughs. In this reading, the period instruments gave it an understated Baroque sound, but laughs it did not get.
The first power outage struck Handel''s Concerto Grosso in G Minor, during which the musicians could be seen only as black silhouettes against the faint glow of a backstage emergency light. Miss a beat? Not even one. The lights returned within about four minutes. The second blackout occurred while Pianca was soloist in the last movement of Vivaldi''s popular Lute Concerto in D (and effectively canceled the one work left on the program). But neither Pianca nor the band even blinked, going on to finish the piece with all the sizzle and ornamental grace notes anyone could want.
If Antonini uses a highly physical style of leading his group, he is utterly shameless as a soloist. In Vivaldi''s Sopranino Concerto in C, Antonini packed more notes per inch with brilliant improvisations, than it is likely Vivaldi himself ever imagined. He also bent notes and squeezed appoggiaturas until they turned purple. He was outrageous, and the gallery loved it.
Prazak Solos Sparkle
On tour from the Czech Republic, the Prazak String Quartet claimed Beethoven as its own in Carmel last week. When the group arrived at the last movement of his Quartet in B Flat (no. 6 from Opus 18), Prazak made it sound like a dumka, an Eastern European dance that alternates slow with fast.
And why not? It certainly didn''t violate the composer''s plan, and, in Prazak''s hands, it felt just right. Only in the scherzo movement did Prazak allow a slight blemish to blur its otherwise impeccable presentation to the sponsoring Chamber Music Monterey Bay.
The program then went forward with two masterpieces, masterfully played, of Bohemian chamber music, Janacek''s Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata" and Smetana''s Quartet No. 1 "From My Life." The shorter Janacek, based on a Tolstoy story of jealousy and murder, is filled with the same theatrical intensity as his Sinfonietta for Orchestra and three-part tone poem, Taras Bulba. All of these works build their tensions from short themes and mottoes treated as ostinato. In Janacek''s hands, however, this repetition is applied as only one of many techniques. Bracing and anxious, the Prazak reading advocated the composer''s dramatic concept authoritatively.
For all the popularity of his operas and tone poems, Smetana''s "From My Life" echoes with even greater immediacy in the music of both Dvorak and Janacek. The autobiographical piece is full of folk dances and a Bohemian yearning for the earth. As in the Janacek, solos highlighted a warmly generous performance, one that effectively masked that shocking interruption in the finale when a high E on the first violin signals the onset of deafness that would doom the composer to the same fate as Beethoven.