Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What's so funny about peace, love and the Venetian baroque?

An Il Giardino jam.

Imagine Elvis Costello and the Attractions tearing through the Venetian baroque, and you've roughly got the idea of Il Giardino Armonico ("The Harmonious Garden"), which held a Boston Early Music Festival audience pretty much spellbound last Saturday at Sanders Theatre. The Gardeners essayed their program ("A Venezia!") in stylish, slightly-kinky duds that reminded me of the skinny ties and sharp suits of the New Wave of my youth; lutist Luca Pianca, for instance, was dressed in what looked like black satin, while lead violinist Enrico Onofri was draped with a long white scarf (which doubled as a chin rest for his violin).  And of course they had the hair: when conductor Giovanni Antonini finally appeared (to lead Vivaldi's Concerto in C Major for flautino), he arrived sporting a windswept millennial pompadour teased up in rock-nerd splendor (below left).

If anyone doubted, in short, that period music is going pop, Il Giardino Armanico was here to lay those doubts to rest. These guys apparently consider themselves period pop stars, playing period pop music;  and maybe they're not wrong - the Venetian baroque just happens to be a lot older (and a whole lot better) than the pop music we've got today.

Even his hairstyle is baroque.
And if I was deeply amused by this whole conceit (in both senses of the word), I have to admit, most of the pieces the Gardeners played were essentially songs, and were studded with the kinds of solos that Keith Richards or Eddie van Halen would have killed for (and these musicians leaned back in basically the same rock-god stance as they tore through them; all they needed were the bandanas and the pirate boots, and we might have been in the Worcester Centrum).  Then again, the baroque masters no doubt improvised back in Venice; so why shouldn't their modern-day interpreters do so now?  And nothing really matters as long as the players have the chops, does it?

And rest assured these players do have the chops.  Pianca, who founded the group with Antonini in 1986, is (simply put) the best lutist (by far) I've ever heard in my life.  Onofri is likewise a superb violinist; dazzling, in fact (as was second violin Marco Bianchi).  These guys can play in their pajamas for all I care.

Some non-aficionados might have had a few quibbles with the way the Gardeners played their program, though; they ran through their first pieces without a break (two sonatas by Castello, interlaced with both Merula's "La Lusignola" and his familiar "Ciaccona").  This was a lovely mash-up - and what's more, Pianca seemed to be shifting his accents here and there, so it felt a bit like a jam, believe it or not.  The segues back and forth from one composer to another, however, may have been slightly confusing to some in the audience (luckily, I knew the Merula well enough to figure out roughly when I was listening to what).  The presentation fell more into conventional place for the rest of the concert, highlights of which were that Vivaldi concerto - played at supersonic speed (which, perhaps resulted in a few lapses in control by Antonini on the "flautino" - here a sopranino recorder), a poignant sonata by Giovanni Legrenzi, and the exquisite opening movement to the now-obscure Baldassare Galuppi's Concerto in G Minor.  In fact, one left the concert marveling at just how much gorgeous music has fallen into obscurity over the centuries.  Luckily, we have Il Giardino Armonico to tease it back into bloom.

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