In an age of modern convenience and so-called progress, it’s refreshing to witness an endeavor by a group of enthusiastic young musicians seeking to dig up music’s past. Bojan Cicic and his ensemble Suonar Cantando put on a marvelous display of musical responsibility by treating this repertoire with the fire it deserves. Invigorated by their youth yet wise in their programmatic decisions, this emerging ensemble proved itself a worthy representative on the stage.

Bojan Cicic
Bojan Cicic

Tuesday’s concert marked the final performance of the group’s Netherlands/Belgium November tour made possible by the Jumpstart Foundation and the Festival Oude Muziek. The program of the evening featured works from composers having connections to the Venetian court from Rognoni to Vivaldi. Covering a period of over a hundred years, Suonar Cantando weaved in and out of the changing aesthetics of the emerging 18th century in Italy. The first half of the concert showcased the earlier period, drawing comparisons between Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and his predecessor Antonio Bertali. Later in the evening, the chronology progresses, paving the way for later composers of the court, including Antonio Caldara and Alessandro Poglietti, but most well-known perhaps Antonio Vivaldi.

Juxtaposing the opening works of the evening with an “improvised passagi” work from Riccardo Rognoni and a composer from his native Croatia, Vinko Jelic, Cicic brought his virtuosity immediately to the fore while still paying homage to his country’s lesser-known composers. Ranging from three to eight players at a time, the ensemble captured just the right balance for the style.

The group shined as a whole in Antonio Bertali’s Chaconne, which dates back to 1660. Cicic and harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani used the lively and repetitive structure of the work as a chance to “play around”, challenging one another with subtle improvisatory licks passing back and forth between the keyboard and violin. It was in these moments when the humor of this music was truly captured, warming the ears and souls of the audience as a result.

After the intermission, the atmosphere was sufficiently enhanced and the attitude of the musicians was also altered to a more relaxed and assured stance. Though the first half was in and of itself a beautifully crafted program, the true colors and capabilities of this young group rang undeniably strong after the pause. One could argue that with the later works of Caldara, Poglietti and Vivaldi, the possibilities are more dramatic and striking to the ear, but of course the execution of any work of art is always up to the moment’s atmosphere.

And one of the key enhancers of this atmosphere was Mahan Esfahani with his solo variations on “L’Età della Maesta Vostra” by Alessandro Poglietti. Taking to the harpsichord with just the right mix of wit and charm, Esfahani surveyed his audience, openly drawing us in with each new variation. Open laughter could be heard throughout the hall as he graced his way across the keyboard. It’s a rare opportunity to feel, as an audience member, also on display – that your reactions are also somehow a part of the performance.

Last but certainly not least were the ensemble’s much-anticipated Vivaldi interpretations. Amazingly extreme in terms of texture, the strings were able to create such a dynamic range of sonic atmospheres. We so often hear renditions of Vivaldi with a fixed attitude and a focus centered on a “big” sound output. But this Baroque ensemble, with its period instruments and attention to a true piano and soft texture, paved the way for the harsh developments to come. As a result the solo violin resonated warmly and clearly, but unhindered and unforced.

The evening was an enlightening glimpse into 17th-century Venice but also a chance to hear a rare and talented young ensemble under the direction of such a humble and inviting leader.