A grand concert on Saturday evening, July 15, mainly from the Italian Baroque era, 1627-1731, constituted the first of the 2017 Music@Menlo series from the Center for the Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, devoted to “The Glorious Violin.” A host of talented musicians collaborated in an unbroken series of musical consorts and chamber ensembles, each thoroughly blended by temperament and collaborative rapport. The series, which extends until August 5, includes the ambitious functions of these encounters, workshops, tutorials, and concert programs, each designed to unfold the history and artistic development of the violin as it originated in the Cremona tradition and founds its way to Bach and the international musical community.
This initial concert, “The Path to Bach,” tread a happy road that began with a relatively obscure pair of composers, Carlo Farina (1604-1639) and Marco Uccellini (1603-1680). Farina’s work, Capriccio stravagante (1627) virtually anticipates the romantic composer Saint-Saens in his Carnival of the Animals: Farina sets an “Entrada” for string ensemble and continuo followed by some 15 character-pieces that embrace musical instruments – hurdy-gurdy, little trumpet, little fife, clarinet, organ, drum, guitar, and flute – with barnyard and domestic creatures – hen, cat, and dog. At one point, for the dog, the instrumentalists had to yell out a literal bark! This virtuosic and often amusing ensemble featured violinist Soovin Kim, violists Hsin-Yun Huang and Pierre Lapointe, cellist Brook Speltz and Gilbert Kalish, harpsichord continuo. The Sonata No. 18 for 2 Violins from Op. 4 by Uccellini (1645) pitted Adam Barnett-Hart and Arnaud Sussmann as principals, with cellist Dmitri Atapine and harpsichordist Gloria Chien. Each of these pieces demonstrated the expressive and effective possibilities of the instrument, whose four strings could sing, drone, imitate bird calls, achieve high harmonics, and, as played with the wood, col legno, become percussive.
Soovin Kim and Adam Barnett-Hart then addressed Giovanni Vitali’s Passacaglia primo from Varie partite del passemezo, etc., Op. 7 (1682), an austere, “academic” duet-piece in the form of a trio-sonata, accompanied by cellist Brook Speltz and harpsichord Hyeyeon Park. Vitali proved to be an introduction to the real fireworks of the evening: Pietro Locatelli’s Concerto in G Minor, Op. 3, No. 6 exemplified the concerto-grosso style as it had begun to flourish via Corelli and Torelli. Arnaud Sussmann took the solo part, while Aaron Boyd and Soovin Kim brandished violins; Hsin-Yun Huang, the viola; Dmitri Atapine, the cello; Scott Pingel, the bass fiddle; and Gloria Chien, harpsichord. Locatelli’s 1733 collection of 12 violin concertos, L’arte del violin, inaugurates the modern violin concept, in terms of virtuosity and bravura, idiomatic instrumentation. If the opening Largo – Andante already engrossed us, then the stunning final movement Vivace, simply stupefied in Sussmann’s relentless cadenza, set in graduated half-steps in crescendos and decrescendos. As in virtually every concerted piece, the level of performance rose to a cavalcade of spectacular, homogeneous ensemble. So, little surprise that Giuseppe Tartini’s infamous signature piece, his 1715 “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, as performed by Adam Barnett-Hart should render us spellbound, by the sheer dint of high bow position, extended trills, a lovely cantabile, fierce double-stops, and another furious cadenza demanding unbridled stamina. By intermission, Sussmann and Barnett-Hart had become the local heirs to Paganini.
Another pair of string virtuosos would soon reveal themselves after intermission: cellist Keith Robinson and violinist Aaron Boyd. Opening with Arcangelo Corelli’s 1714 Concerto Grosso in G Minor, Op. 6, No. 8, “Christmas,” a large ensemble led by Soovin Kim realized this meditative, often piously chromatic work in brisk, articulate sound, a true “chest” of voices. Though briskly paced, this familiar work lost none of its singular expressivity, an emblem in its Pastorale: Largo finale of the infant Jesus and his congregated admirers of shepherds. Enter the ubiquitous Vivaldi, whose 1742 Concerto in D Major for 2 Violins, 2 Cellos, Strings and Continuo, RV 564 set us toe-tapping and ears ablaze with its piquant Lombardic rhythm and the charming antiphons of paired violins and paired cellos. Barnett-Hart and Kim played violins, while Keith Robinson and Dmiti Atapine did the cello honors. Vivaldi’s infectious genius permeated each canon, trill, rocket figure, and terraced dynamic the composer could invent, and we audience members made note to add this to an already huge catalogue of Vivaldi masterpieces.
Lastly, we had come to the end – or culmination – of this evening’s journey, to the Concerto in D Minor for 2 Violins, BWV 1043 of J.S. Bach (1731). Suddenly, violinist Aaron Boyd emerged, center-stage, to command his violin part as shared with Arnaud Sussmann. Bach, as we know, took the concerto form extant in Vivaldi and raised it to a glory still worthy of veneration. The combination of beauty and chastity, fioritura and grace, virtuosity and economy of means, all achieved in contrapuntal means of expression, left us breathless and even weeping in aesthetic gratitude. Seamless and timeless, this whole evening of Italian masters and its one German acolyte, performed by a true consort of professionals.