Climate-wise, last Friday couldn't have been more appropriate for a performance of Antonio Vivaldi's hyper-descriptive violin concerti, Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons). Like the poor shepherd in Vivaldi's accompanying sonnets, we went from "blazing sun" to "great hailstones" and back. (All we lacked were the "mosche e mossoni," the gnats and flies "buzzing furiously around.")
In the end, Nature's real theater was rendered superfluous by the rich color and drama coaxed from this all-too-familiar piece by the superb Portland string ensemble Magnolia in an all-Vivaldi concert at Grace Memorial Episcopal Church. Regular Magnolians Zachary Carrettin, Greg Ewer and Adam LaMotte (violins), Lori Presthus (cello) and Raymond Granlund (bass-baritone) were joined by a host of guests for an evening devoted not just to the famous Seasons, but to evoking Vivaldi's overall mastery of tone painting. The Concerto in A Minor for lute and strings, transcribed for Baroque guitar by guest player Richard Savino, provided one example of Vivaldi's extraordinary development of this art; technically demanding arias for baritone and strings, dealing with earthly and human nature, provided others.
The Seasons soloists were evidently selected for their individual strengths, as well as musical voices. Ewer's taut, brightly focused tone gave "Spring" polish and verve (with colorful touches from the ensemble, notably viola player Stephen Creswell's barking dog in the slow movement). LaMotte's "Summer" flashed storms of passionate and muscular virtuosity. Violinist Kenneth Goldsmith's "Autumn" was comically evocative--the uncertain balance and reckless glee of inebriated peasants were summed up in slightly askew intonation and breakneck tempi. Carrettin's "Winter" offered icy velocity and raw, exposed string tone, even in the usually contented Largo. Spring, one gathered, was still too far away for comfort. The ensemble players were first-rate, from Savino's elegant guitar obbligato to Presthus' and contrabassist Curtis Daily's beautifully supportive dark strings. In tandem with each concerto, Granlund read Vivaldi's sonnets in lush, operatic Italian.
In the Lute Concerto, Savino's transcription benefited from the guitar substitution: The instrument's more insistent voice helped give phrasing more shape and color than the lute normally summons. The slow movement was especially effective, with Savino and ensemble ably conveying the music's endearing sashay.
Granlund's majestic bass-baritone is one of those rare big voices consistent from top to bottom: handsome, solid and gleaming as black marble yet responsive to the poetry of text and tone. Throughout, he delivered plenty of heartfelt expression, particularly in the darkly admonitory aria "Ch'alla colpa fa' tragitto" ("He who takes the path to guilt will not shrink from guilt again"). Conveyed so seductively, sin's wages begin to look worthwhile.