A few hours after New York City feted the US women’s soccer team with a jubilant ticker tape parade, thrilling shouts of appreciation were heard uptown for another ensemble defined by individual virtuosity and a flawless capacity for teamwork. The Venice Baroque Orchestra – 15 men and women of extraordinary musical drive and a unique synergy – performed in Temple Emanu-El across from Central Park. The event was part of the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts, now in its 114th season and billed as the oldest continuous free concert series in existence. Dwarfed by the soaring interior space (103 feet high) of one of the world’s largest synagogues, the orchestra wasted no time in commanding the attention of more than 2,000 attendees as well as a live stream online with a program of eight concerto-length compositions and two Vivaldi encores.

Venice Baroque Orchestra © Anna Carmignola
Venice Baroque Orchestra
© Anna Carmignola

In true Baroque style, the group performed without a conductor per se, though first violinist and soloist Gianpiero Zanocco clearly defined the pace and phrasing of each selection. It was not a concert to delight rigid purists seeking pristine lines and discreet dynamics, but to enthrall those who crave passion and feeling in their music, regardless of its era or pedigree.

The program opened calmly enough with Vivaldi’s Sinfonia in C major RV 725 and Handel’s stately Concerto grosso in G major, HWV 319. From the earliest moments, the comfortable interaction among the musicians, so essential to their distinctive style and sound, became apparent. A cellist glanced over his shoulder with a nod to the bassist, the lutenist flashed a smile of approval to a violinist. It was clear that the musicians were listening to each other, and acknowledging when their colleagues did something especially well.

Following a pleasant rendition of Albinoni’s Concerto in G major, Op.7 no.4, the ensemble rallied for Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in E minor, RV 273. This work gave Zanocco many opportunities to display his virtuosic style in a series of devilish variations by the Red Priest. The second movement featured liquid chords seeming to linger and then fall from the archlute (a larger, more resonant version of the Baroque lute) like large raindrops slipping languidly into the Grand Canal. Some spectacular solo playing by Zanocco in the final movement foretold the musical fireworks to come after intermission.

The second half of the program began with Marcello’s Sinfonia in G major for strings and basso continuo. This work featured a brief but intense duet between the first and third violins, and later some agitated ensemble playing in the final Prestissimo. In the Marcello, as in each of the compositions performed, the unique character of the selection was emphasized, so Marcello’s own personality (or the ensemble’s understanding of that personality) emerged.

The VBO may specialize in Vivaldi, but even here, the singularity of each composition was honored and explored. As WQXR host Annie Bergen pointed out in a brief commentary before the concert, there is a joke [credited to Stravinsky] that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times; but this ensemble disproves that hypothesis. A vivid example was Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in A minor, RV 419, with Massimo Raccanelli playing in true Baroque style (without an endpin). Raccanelli’s introspective reading of the purely solo passages were performed with eyes closed or vaguely focused on space rather than the score, creating that sweet spot where musician and music are one.

The most spectacular ensemble playing came in the last two works. Geminiani’s Concerto grosso in D minor, essentially a set of 12 variations on the popular Spanish folk tune, La Follia. Again, Zanocco took the lead with a dazzling array of techniques and tricks such as spiccato (bouncing the bow on the strings) and the more familiar pizzicato. There was a level of aggression and forcefulness one does not see or hear so often in Baroque performances, but totally appropriate for the tumultuous age that gave birth to these composers of rare invention.

Anna Fusek, who played violin in the back row throughout this concert, emerged in the last selection as soprano recorder soloist extraordinaire in Vivaldi’s Concerto in C major RV 443. Fusek’s technique and musicianship are breathtaking: fast, bright, and expressive. Fusek’s body undulates, rising and lowering with the pitch, as she extracts a variety of tones and effects from the tiny, unassuming instrument, at ever accelerating speed against a backdrop of furious fiddling.

The Venice Baroque Orchestra appreciates the value of exciting performances such as these to lure and satisfy today’s audiences. But it also knows the importance of deep and continuous understanding, respect for the era and its creators, and when to slow down and share moments of inner reflection punctuated by silence. The concert ended with two Vivaldi favorites: the first movement of the Concerto in D minor, RV 127, and the final movement of “Summer” from The Four Seasons, bubbling over with vitality and delight.

*****