Juilliard415, the ensemble of Juilliard’s Historical Performance program, has performed concerts led by luminaries such as Christopher Hogwood and Jordi Savall. This weekend, the distinguished English violinist and conductor Rachel Podger, who specializes in the Baroque, led the ensemble with infectious high spirits in a beautifully performed program of concerti by Vivaldi and his contemporaries called “A più stromenti: Virtuoso Concertos of the Italian Baroque.”
With polished young performers on many different instruments at her disposal for the Music Before 1800 event, Podger presented a wide range of music that indeed featured the più stromenti (“more instruments”) of the program’s title – flutes, oboes, and bassoon as well as strings.
Francesco Maria Veracini’s “Ouverture No. 6 in G minor for 2 oboes, bassoon, and strings” was an eye-opening table-setter, the three reeds combining to create a composite “soloist” with unusual tonalities. In short movements like a small concerto, the piece captured attention from the windswept Allegro at the start through an optimistically martial movement and a minuet composed of unison lines.
During the Veracini’s stately Largo I was reminded of the marvelous acoustics of Corpus Christi Church, in Manhattan near Columbia University. The room sounds like a scientifically designed, modest-sized concert hall, not at all the booming temple of echoes one often walks into for a church concert.
That fine sound quality made the fun Podger had with Vivaldi’s “Concerto in D Major for Strings L’inquietudine” all the more enjoyable as she lent her own caramel-sweet tones to the celestial violin melodies in the Largo, and displayed out-of-this-world agility on the closing Allegro, with its dramatic dynamics reminiscent of the composer’s most famous piece today, the Four Seasons.
The first half of the program closed with a “Concerto in A minor for 4 Violins” by Giuseppe Valentini, a contemporary of Vivaldi’s whom I wasn’t familiar with. Featuring a brilliantly played minor-key fugue, this unusual creation gave each of four violinists a solo workout, with exquisite phrasing from Podger on the Adagio. It was a highlight of the evening.
Concerti by Vivaldi followed the intermission. The “D major for 2 violins, 2 cellos, and strings” offered tightly timed 16th-note passages, violin parts that flowed together gorgeously in the Largo, and deft work from all four soloists in the finale. The lovely and exquisitely played “C major for 2 flutes and strings” had a wintry feel because the period flutes have a more muted sound than modern ones.
The “G major for oboe, bassoon, and strings” has a slow movement in which the soloists, backed only by theorbo and harpsichord, found delicate emotion even in simple scale-based passages.
A “Concerto Grosso in D major” by Corelli showcased Podger’s sensitive timing and tone in its first movement; beautiful ensemble passagework and flowing dynamics in the Andante Largo; a concise fugue; and a gigue-like finale for a lively end to the program. When the crowd demanded an encore, the ensemble played a Chaconne that gave each of its 10 or so violinists a “verse” on which to solo, reminding me of the later tradition of jazz improvisation.
The entire concert had an extemporaneous aura, an illusion derived from Podger’s exuberant energy and the enthusiasm of an ensemble that appeared exhilarated to be under her direction. She is a violinist at the height of her powers, her virtuosity enhanced by an extraordinary blend of assurance and élan. The concert was a joy through and through.