It was my husband who first introduced me to the world of classical music, back when we met ten years ago. My affection for this genre grew slowly, but steadily. At first, I would enjoy the pieces but, because they would fade into the background, I would never remember them. With time, I noticed that I was occasionally able to correctly identify composers, rather than making random guesses hoping to be correct and to impress him in the early stages of our relationship (“Mozart, right?” Because, when in doubt, Mozart was a pretty safe guess). Later on, I grew more selective in my taste; I learned which pieces I adored, and which ones didn’t evoke anything in me. Eventually, it was me who began to introduce my husband to tons of new classical music – some very different pieces than what he would actually listen to in the past – and ended up adding to his enormous collection of composers and pieces. I have my favorites, some popular and some obscure, most of which are Baroque and Romantic, and almost all of which are strings.
The composer who has the biggest place in my heart (and my iTunes library) is Vivaldi. I find his music difficult to put into words. I just know for certain what a whirlwind his pieces send me into, with all their nuances and multi-layered-ness, their distinctive rhythm and the way the sounds build perfectly on one another to create either a fast-paced frenzied movement, or a intensely touching slow movement. I can recognize Vivaldi from a mile away by now, and he always sends me into reverie. Although I love the Four Seasons, my favorite of his is “L’Estro armonico” (opus 3) – an ingenious series of twelve concertos for violins, cellos and strings that Vivaldi wished would fill the public with joy. “Vivete felici“, he used to address his fellow music lovers, “Live happy“.
Last week, Quebec’s chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy played L’estro armonico in its entirety at the new concert hall at the Museum of Fine Arts, Bourgie Hall – an intimate and atmospheric venue with spectacular acoustics and stunning Tiffany stained-glass windows. Tickets for students are VERY affordable (25$ and I was sitting in the very first row) and, as you will gather from my description of the evening, worth every penny. It was my first concert with the musicians of Les Violons du Roy, and within minutes, I was blown away by their passion and worldly skill.
It was impossible not to feel a surge of emotion from the very minute the concert began. The clarity of the violins piercing through the space, and that complicated intertwined-ness of notes that is so characteristic of Vivaldi, moved me to the point of tears. The concertos making up L’Estro armonico are a striking mix of fast and slow. The fast pieces are joyful, playful, powerful – crazy, even. The slow ones take you and envelop you, until you feel a dramatic slowing down of your heart and you almost forget to breathe. Within one movement, there is also alternation between loud and quiet, and the violinists were truly amazing at capitalizing on these contrasts in their interpretation of the pieces. When the violins slowed or quieted down, holding a note for a while, they’d pull on you, make you feel vulnerable and then leave you alone in deep quiet, waiting for more.
There is something absolutely astonishing about so many violins and strings being played in unison, then straying far away from one another, until there are suddenly so many layers, so many individual trajectories, that you can no longer fully keep track of it all. Violins chasing each other, climbing up and falling down again, coming together and straying away, fading in from the background to the foreground, and then back again. This fluidity was echoed by the violinists’ movements; their arm and fingers sometimes moved with such intensity and momentum, and other times their bows sliced ever so slowly through the space. I watched the violinists lift themselves up onto their toes as they played lingering parts of the slower pieces, as if drifting into the air along with their notes.
The concert was a feast for the eyes. I was moved by the synchronicity of the musicians, their bows aligned in perfect parallels, with the same angle and same passion. They worked hard, standing in the middle of a semi-circle of strings, with the cello, harpsichord and lute contributing to their harmony. What struck me about this performance was that all the 8 female violinists of Les Violons du Roy took turns playing – in between concertos, there was always a pause followed by a rotation of violinists. Those who weren’t playing remained on stage, watching their colleagues, suddenly finding themselves transformed from musicians into spectators, enjoying the piece just like the rest of us in the Hall. I watched their head movements, and smiled as I noticed that even the violinists who were not playing were moving their heads like those who were. They were clearly intoxicated by the piece, and their passion was impossible to conceal. As the evening went on, I learned the names of the violinists (by applying some deductive reasoning based on the program!) and began to appreciate their individual styles; they were all different, from the style of their violins, to the style of their dresses, to the unique flair with which they each played. But they were all unified through the piece and through the conductor.
I paid attention to the frequent glances and subtle smiles the violinists exchanged, which I soon realized were not only to read each others’ cues to keep their synchronicity, but also subtle signs of mutual admiration and enjoyment of their own performance. They would also smile at the end of each part, as if proud of the way they had played, and still touched – somehow, after all those hours of practicing the same pieces – by Vivaldi’s music. What I loved was that there was a short pause in between each of the parts, even when we weren’t supposed to applaud. It gave us all a chance to savor what we had just heard before they moved on. When we couldn’t applaud, though, I found myself holding my breath as if to contain my emotion. I was moved throughout the evening.
I thought of Venice. Vivaldi was born in Venice and lived there most of his life, and so much of Venice seeps through his music. The imagery just appears with the notes. Sunshine and canals. Basilicas and processions. Dark nights and gondolas rocking on water as black as ink and as smooth as silk. My love for Vivaldi stems from my love for Venice, and yet my love for Vivaldi also fuels my nostalgia for Venice all the more.
I sat still, not once looking at my watch and barely looking around me at others. I occasionally glanced around to check if other faces wore expressions of amazement and wonder, as I am sure mine did. The rest of the time, I stared at the stage, my mind focused on all that I described above – the instruments, the melodies, the movements – and temporarily devoid of all else. The light let through by the stained-glass windows was our only hint of the outside world. At the intermission, I noticed that the light had changed – the perfect indication of passing time – yet it went almost unnoticed.
Even if you are not as in love with a classical music piece as I am in love with this one, it would be difficult not to moved by – or, at the very least, enjoy – such an experience. Even if you have never heard a certain piece before, if you are surrounded by beautiful music and passionate people, and sitting quietly in a gorgeous space, it is pretty much a given that you will have a wonderful evening. So, I highly recommend you check out concerts at the Bourgie Hall, or upcoming concerts by Les Violons du Roy. It is impossible not to be blown away by their passion.
In fact, if anyone managed to walk away that evening with a single negative impression or thought, I would say they think too much with their head and not enough with their heart.
Thank you, Vivaldi, for a beautiful evening and for always pulling on my heart with your strings. ♥