The idea of reframing a well-known warhorse of the classical repertory is not a bad one. Theatre and opera goers have had modern-dress or deconstructed versions of Shakespeare and Mozart available for decades, and the plays and operas are still beloved. Why not try it with Vivaldi?

Pekka Kuusisto and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra © Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
Pekka Kuusisto and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
© Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

Violinist Pekka Kuusisto, along with double bassist Knut Erik Sundquist, conductor Andrew Manze and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, gave us such a reframing in a concert of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances (originally for piano, heard here in Arthur Willner's arrangement for string orchestra) and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The frame in question consisted of the interpolation, between movements of both pieces, of traditional music from Romania, Finland and Norway, performed by the two soloists.

Vivaldi published the four violin concertos that make up The Four Seasons in 1725, part of a set of twelve that represent only a tiny fraction of his output (he published more than 500 concertos). However, they are probably his most famous compositions; the opening of Spring, in particular, has reached that iconic status of being recognizable from commercials and soundtracks, with some of the other fast movements close behind it.

Kuusisto brought an easy, genial, informal presence and a seemingly effortless virtuosity to this performance. Shirt untucked, he interacted with the orchestra’s soloists in the passages where they played together, and frequently turned his back to the house to play towards the onstage audience. Sundquist, like Manze and the orchestra, seemed to be having the time of his life, acting as Kuusisto’s accompanist during the folk music sections and playing along with the bass section in the Vivaldi. Orchestral music is usually a serious business; I have rarely seen an orchestra that seemed to be having such fun onstage.

I imagine this was because Manze and Kuusisto chose to emphasize Vivaldi’s programmatic elements, occasionally to extremes, and gave themselves permission to play. Taking their cue from Kuusisto’s playing style in the traditional music, the strings added glissandos in a couple of passages, as well as snap pizzicato and sul ponticello (playing near an instrument’s bridge for a glassy, eerie sound), both techniques that did not come into wide use until Bartók’s time. The violins at the beginning of the Winter played their stabbing grace notes so forcibly it brought to mind Bernard Herrmann’s iconic scoring of the shower scene in Psycho. The orchestra even sang the final note of one movement, and deliberately paused for a page turn in the middle of another, to general audience delight.

Pekka Kuusisto, Andrew Manze and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra © Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
Pekka Kuusisto, Andrew Manze and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
© Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

Kuusisto, for his part, brought elements of the traditional music into cadenza passages within the Vivaldi, incorporating bends and slides and blurring the boundaries between the interpolations and the composed material. (I’m pretty sure I heard a Fiddler on the Roof quote at one point, too.)

The interpolated traditional material itself ranged from foot-stomping fiddling to bagpipe-like melancholy over a drone. Hearing music like this in a concert setting from virtuosically polished musicians is a different experience, of course, from hearing the same type of material in settings closer to its origins. You’re not really listening to traditional music, you’re listening to classical musicians’ take on traditional music. I was reminded strongly of Joshua Bell’s collaboration with Edgar Meyer on the album Short Trip Home, which blended bluegrass and Appalachian influences with classical chamber music. It’s a great album, but it’s not bluegrass.

The difficulty with all of this is that there seemed to be no logical connection, and not much of a musical one other than the incorporation of a few playing techniques, between these traditional materials and the Vivaldi. The conceit worked much better during the Bartók, when Kuusisto and Sundquist’s gloss on traditional Romanian melodies were juxtaposed with Bartók’s gloss on traditional Romanian melodies. (Manze’s interpretation was interestingly Romantic-sounding, with flexible tempos and atmospheric textures instead of the directness and physicality usually associated with this composer.) Connecting this material with Vivaldi’s beloved concertos was a bit of a stretch, and while the performances were top-notch, the Vivaldi was not so much illuminated by the interpolations as it was interrupted.

Kuusisto’s rationale for the frame, as printed in the program, is a little fuzzy: “I feel the Vivaldi needs to be very real, earthy, un-beautified storytelling of people’s lives in all types of weather. The fact that the ‘Summer’ concerto is built of exclusively unpleasant conditions connects it with the ongoing climate debate.”

Putting that aside, not all of the concertos’ programmatic elements are about weather, the lack of an explanation for the juxtaposition even in an explanatory note is telling. While it is a refreshing idea to recontextualize an oft-programmed piece of this status, and Mostly Mozart is to be applauded for it, this particular evening turned out to be a superb performance of a not entirely convincing idea.