April 5, 2023

Jupiter Ensemble Presents Captivating Baroque Concert

By Nancy Plum

The music of 18th-century Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi is frequently heard on recordings, radio, and in films, but less often performed live, and Vivaldi’s more than 50 operas in particular are virtually unknown. Overshadowed in modern Baroque opera performance by works of George Frideric Handel and others, Vivaldi’s operas contain the same audience appeal and technical demands of other popular Baroque composers but have been neglected in the repertory. The early-music Jupiter Ensemble, a collective of exceptional musicians whose concerts highlight virtuoso performance, brought Vivaldi’s lively and animated music to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night, presented by Princeton University Concerts. The seven-member ensemble performed an all-Vivaldi program, with multi-movement instrumental concerti interspersed with operatic arias. With four concerti and six operas represented, the musicians of Jupiter Ensemble showed the nearly full house at Richardson just how exciting and entertaining the early 1700s could be.

Jupiter Ensemble Artistic Director Thomas Dunford has an international reputation as a virtuoso lute player, and this instrument figured significantly in Thursday night’s program. The Ensemble presented two lute concerti, and Dunford played continuously throughout the concert as part of a continuo accompaniment, joined by cellist Bruno Philippe, double bassist Douglas Balliett, and Elliot Figg playing both organ and harpsichord. Elegant string playing was provided by violinists Louise Ayrton and Augusta McKay Lodge, as well as violist Manami Mizumoto. Vivaldi’s opera arias were sensitively and expressively sung by French-Italian mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre, who has also performed some of the most demanding coloratura opera roles in the repertoire worldwide.

The opera excerpts sung by Desandre were almost concerti in themselves, alternating tutti sections for all players with “solo” passages for Desandre with cello, bass, lute, and keyboard accompaniment. Princeton University Concerts supplied supertitles for the Italian text, and Desandre well conveyed the varied emotions and storylines of the operas. Vivaldi’s operas date from an era when castrati singers were superstars, and composers competed for pyrotechnic vocal show-stoppers. Desandre easily handled the top speed coloratura melodic lines in Vivaldi’s arias, yet just as easily sang with a hollow and aching vocal sound in more somber pieces. As was the custom in Vivaldi’s time, Desandre imaginatively ornamented the da capo repetitions of the arias’ primary sections.

Lutenist Dunford was featured in two concerti, each of which was in the traditional 18th-century format of three movements in alternating fast-slow-fast tempi. The son of two viola da gamba players, Dunford has played the lute since the age of nine and has been stretching the boundaries of lute performance ever since.

Vivaldi originally composed Lute Concerto in C Major as a string trio, replacing one of the violins with the lute for this work. In Thursday’s performance, Dunford played on an instrument resembling an archlute, with a long neck and additional strings providing a deep and resonant sound. Combined with the Baroque tuning of the other Jupiter instruments, Dunford’s playing created an intimate musical atmosphere. The Ensemble well captured the dance-like character of the outer movements of the concerto, with a contrasting reflective second movement “Larghetto.” Cellist Philippe and double bassist Balliett were key in maintaining a steady continuo foundation under Dunford’s spirited plucking and strumming of the lute strings. Lute Concerto in D Major presented a brighter and more joyful chamber orchestral palette, as Dunford easily displayed the virtuoso capabilities of the instrument.

It is hard to imagine a Vivaldi concert without music from his most well-known The Four Seasons, and Jupiter Ensemble performed one of the lesser-known concerti from this set. “L’inverno” (“Winter”), featuring violin soloist Louise Ayrton, depicted icy chill and bitter cold through sharp string bowings and a dark harmonic key. This concerto required the same challenging technical demands one might expect from a composer who was also a virtuoso violinist, and Ayrton did not disappoint in maneuvering incredibly fast solo lines and driving rhythms as Vivaldi’s “winter” drew to a fierce and windy close. Ayrton played especially serene melodic lines in the second movement, accompanied by the pizzicato raindrops of the other instruments.

Cellist Philippe was featured in Cello Concerto in G Minor, accompanied by continuo players Dunford, Balliett, and harpsichordist Elliot Figg. Combined with the upper strings, all instrumentalists drove rhythms forward while Philippe demonstrated lightning-speed fingering over the fret board of his instrument in rapid-fire cello lines. Accompanied by Dunford on lute, Philippe also played a poignant and touching second movement “Adagio” melodic line.

Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, and George Frideric Handel were all contemporaries, and although working in different parts of Europe, their music was equal in complexity and technical difficulty. The Jupiter Ensemble musicians had no trouble meeting the challenges of Vivaldi’s works, and despite the ferocity of the music, consistently executed graceful cadences to phrases. Thursday night’s concert proved to the Richardson audience to be an excellent lesson in Baroque performance practice, as well as a chance to experience music not often heard in the concert hall.