Sinfonia: from story to story

Jean Snook
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This review of Saturday evening’s Sinfonia concert in the D.F. Cook Recital Hall begins and ends with a story: the first fictitious; the last factual.

With a slight change in programming, what was initially advertised as an all Vivaldi Baroque concert, became a 5/6 Vivaldi concert entitled “Vivaldi at Sea.” In his opening remarks, the solo violinist and conductor Mark Fewer asked us to willingly suspend our disbelief as he gave the whole concert an overarching program, such as might be invented impromptu by a group of travelling players. The players on stage, members of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra Sinfonia, were to be seen as a group of musicians on a ship en route to India, where they would eventually play for the great Genghis Khan (a somewhat anachronistic idea, since Genghis died in 1227, and Vivaldi wasn’t born until 1678). However, the title of the first “Concerto for Violin,” RV 253, was “La tempesta di mare,” and as a true piece of program music, it could easily set the stage for a tempestuous sea voyage.

The second piece, a leap forward in time, was supposedly on-board entertainment. It was actually the première performance of Matthias Maute’s “Concerto for Violin” composed for Mark Fewer. Maute was born in 1963.

The third “Concerto for Violin,” RV 270, was entitled “Il riposo” in Vivaldi’s time. Fair enough. The sea is not always stormy.

Fewer ventured into dodgy linguistic territory by telling us that the title of the fourth work, the “Concerto for Violin and Cello,” RV 544, or “Il Proteo,” meant “God of the Sea.” It doesn’t. But according to the Italian instructor at Memorial University, Dr. Cristina Fabretto, “Proteo” can be a person’s name, so Fewer managed to save himself by joking that “Proteo” was “Pro Theo,” in reference to our excellent professional principal cellist Theo Weber, a reference all appreciated.

The ship analogy became overly strained, in my opinion, in the fifth piece, the “Trio Sonata,” RV 63, a theme with nineteen variations, which Fewer staged as a “wrestling match” between the Captain and the First Mate, represented respectively by himself and by guest concertmaster Lynn Kuo, with other members of the orchestra hooting their approval. While most of the audience loved it – see my photo of Kuo and Fewer accepting extended applause – I found it an uglification of the work whose serenity and beauty I have come to treasure in my 1989 recording of it by the Danubius Ensemble. Saturday evening’s “wrestling match” completely lost sight of the fact that the main theme is a saraband, a “graceful, stately, slow Spanish dance in triple time” (Webster’s).

The concert closed with Vivaldi’s great “Concerto for Violin” in D Major, RV 208, “Il Grosso Mogul,” in which Fewer’s uncontested virtuosity (whether for Genghis Khan or for us) earned him two curtain calls.

Music first

Now I will discuss the music, minus simplistic program. The sold-out house, with a waiting list for tickets, indicates that Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) is a composer whose music we want to hear. Rock and rap music have not replaced our need for the definition and dignity of the Baroque era. Much of Vivaldi’s music consists of repetition, of a phrase repeated at a lower volume, of a passage on the violin repeated by the cello, or of descending sequences, but it is also very subtle, and very expressive. When Vivaldi raises a note by a semitone, we can feel our spines stretching and straightening.

There is much to be said as well for the surprise piece premièred on the program, the “Concerto for Violin” by Matthias Maute. Fewer warned us in his introductory comments that Maute “turns tonality on its ear,” and on first hearing the fast outer movements, the Allegro and the Danza pastorale, did seem cacophonous. The atmospheric middle movement, though, the Largo, was lovely. It began with solo violin, which was then accompanied only by the four members of the string quartet. Fewer played a long passage in quiet, clear harmonics, and there was a lyrical quality to the Largo that seemed to be telling a story of its own. I would like to hear it again.


The musicianship displayed by the NSO’s Sinfonia is undoubtedly also a reason why the concert was sold out. Focussing first on the regular players, special praise is due to principal cellist Theo Weber, who always rises to the occasion, but truly outdid himself in his solo work on Saturday. The “Concerto for Violin and Cello” in F Major, RV 544, “Il Proteo,” is one of only three known double concertos for violin and cello by Vivaldi, and almost always has the violin leading.

Fewer took some sections at a tempo that was very fast for a violin, yet Weber echoed them effortlessly, every time, at the same speed on the cello, although the cellist, when you think of it, is dealing with a much larger instrument and has to move his bow and fingers correspondingly farther. It made me think of Robert Thaves’ comment about Fred Astaire in a 1982 Frank and Ernest comic strip: “Sure, he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards . . . and in high heels.”

It was also very pleasant to be able to hear Mary O’Keeffe on the harpsichord for a change. Her instrument is all too often drowned out in larger ensembles, but on Saturday evening she frequently accompanied just one or two soloists.

‘Wrestling match’

Guest concertmaster Lynn Kuo is the assistant concertmaster of the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra. She was easily able to hold her own against Fewer in the staged “wrestling match,” and lent the Vivaldi added authenticity by using a Baroque bow, which lacks the concave shape (Kolneder).

Mark Fewer

Mark Fewer’s playing is getting better and better. Both his tone and his intonation were better on Saturday than when I heard him perform the Beethoven violin concerto with the NSO on September 28, 2012. His violin, he tells me, was made by Feng Jiang in Ann Arbor, Michigan; and his bow was made by the French Canadian Emmanuel Begin.

I had assumed that Fewer chose to perform the “Il Grosso Mogul” Concerto because of the explanation offered in Simon Heighes’ 1992 notes to the recording made by Monica Huggett with the European Community Baroque Orchestra: “Although Vivaldi’s astonishing virtuosity as a violinist is of course lost to posterity, we are able to glimpse something of his ‘terrifying’ technique due to the fortunate survival of two cadenzas (one lasting over 100 bars) which he wrote for the first and last movements of the present concerto (preserved in two manuscript copies of the work).” Yet Fewer informed me that he wrote all the cadenzas himself. Certainly, his were no easier than Vivaldi’s, who had extended the range to A6 and gone up to the 12th position. Fewer’s cadenzas, informed by jazz and new innovative techniques of fingering and bowing, are worthy of a study in themselves.

That said, being the soloist was only half his role. Mark Fewer was also the conductor, swivelling around to play with each section as he wanted them to play, assuring stark dynamic contrasts, and unexpected effects. The strings made the last note before the intermission slide down in pitch as if someone had pulled the plug on a record player. Everyone laughed.

Dynamic stage presence

Fewer’s stage presence is dynamic. He comes bouncing in, so light on his feet, and maintains that suppleness through all his playing and directing. He had the Sinfonia, and the audience, fully engaged. I am grateful to Mark Fewer for responding so kindly and generously to all my questions and requests.

The facts

And now, esteemed readers, the factual story is what I had hoped to hear in the introductory remarks. The New York Philharmonic program for its December 13 and 14 performances of Beethoven and Strauß includes the line: “Writer and music historian Harvey Sachs will give a talk one hour prior to these performances.”

Why can we not do the same for our equally sophisticated audiences? And what composer’s works have a more interesting background story than Antonio Vivaldi’s? The fact is that the concert we heard on Saturday evening would have been an impossibility until the late 20th century, because his works were forgotten for 200 years. When Vivaldi died shortly after arriving in Vienna, having been plunged into penury by the unexpected death of his patron, his burial was “only the simplest of ceremonies” (Heller).

“Vivaldi is not called musician, composer, or the like in any of the entries; instead he is only designated a secular priest. We have the impression that people had no idea who the deceased was, that those around him in his last surroundings had no inkling of the fame this secular priest enjoyed as a musician. That would coincide with the lack of any public notice of his death” (Heller 264). Indeed, it was not until January 1963 that “the English scholar Eric Paul located the long-sought-after document that established Vivaldi’s date of birth,” which was during an earthquake!

His works were becoming unfashionable before his death, and “in the confusion of the Napoleonic Wars, it appears that the musical library of the Court Orchestra at Turin was hidden when the court fled to Sardinia, and when peace finally returned, no one could remember where the hiding place was” (H.C. Robbins Landon). Then the monks at Monferrato “found that they had a large musical library which had been left to them by a member of the Durazzo family” (Landon) and they decided to sell it to the National Library in Turin, hiring an antiquarian dealer as an agent to get them top dollar. Professor Alberto Gentili raised the considerable sum of money, only to discover from the way the Vivaldi volumes were numbered that “the Monferrato Monastery had only received half the former Durazzo collection” (Landon). The other half eventually turned out to be with the nephew, Marquis Giuseppe Maria Durazzo,” who kept his library very private. He was ultimately persuaded to sell the remaining Vivaldi to the Biblioteca Nazionale on January 30, 1930, but did so on condition “that the music of this collection should never be published. There then ensued a huge legal battle which, fortunately, was lost by Durazzo and in 1936 . . . the way to a thorough investigation of Vivaldi was opened.”

The first recording of “The Four Seasons,” the Cetro recording, came out in 1950. Meanwhile, efforts to catalogue the works continued, supported by many prominent people, including Ezra Pound. The French scholar Marc Pincherle published his inventory in Paris in 1948. It has been largely superceded by the work of the Danish musicologist Peter Ryom, hence the RV numbers, with RV standing for the Ryom Verzeichnis, published in Poitiers in 1979.

More yet to be discovered?

At present, the publisher Schott lists 440 Vivaldi scores. There may be more out there, waiting to be discovered. There are still many libraries in Europe, for example at the Georg-August University in Göttingen, that have large rooms stacked from floor to ceiling with as yet unidentified manuscripts.

The search continues.

Organizations: Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra Sinfonia, National Ballet of Canada Orchestra, French Canadian Emmanuel Begin European Community Baroque Orchestra New York Philharmonic Court Orchestra National Library Four Seasons University in Göttingen

Geographic location: India, Durazzo, Turin Ann Arbor, Michigan Vienna Sardinia Paris Poitiers Europe

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