Vivaldi Experiencing Renaissance in Israel

The Academia Daniel ensemble sets out to reveal another side of the multifaceted Baroque composer.

Noam Ben-Zeev
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Noam Ben-Zeev

What composer is better-known and more popular than Antonio Vivaldi? Who can't hum "The Four Seasons," which tops sales charts and can be heard as telephone ring tones everywhere you turn? Or his wonderful "Gloria" - if not by name, then at least by tune. Or ... but wait, is that all?

In total, Vivaldi composed 40 operas or more; about the same number of cantatas; many, many religious works; at least 100 chamber works; and, the most striking feature of his oeuvre, more than 500 concertos for solo instruments as well as orchestras.

This comes to about 1,000 pieces, each extraordinary. But of all this treasure, is all we remember of him "Spring" from "The Four Seasons"?

Indeed, the composer was so prolific that researchers have not managed to cover all his work in depth. Vivaldi (1678-1741) was one of the greats of the late Baroque period - the generation of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel - and also a considerable influence on them, especially Bach, who wrote out and adapted his works.

But, though his name was on everyone's lips during his lifetime, and still is to this day, Vivaldi's contemporary audience is aware of only a fraction of his works.

Something of this distortion is being corrected this week as the Academia Daniel Baroque ensemble, under the musical direction of harpsichordist and conductor Shalev Ad-El, presents "Viva Vivaldi," a series of concerts featuring his chamber works for a variety of instruments and ensembles. The series kicked off in Haifa on Tuesday, and will continue on Saturday, January 5, in Tel Aviv at the Einav Culture Center; and in Jerusalem on Monday, January 7, at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University, at 1:15 P.M.

The spirit behind the series is recorder player Doret Florentin, a musician who has performed in well-known venues abroad with conductors such as Ton Koopman and Jos van Immerseel.

"There is always a vocal side in concerts of Baroque music," she says, "especially in the case of Vivaldi, with his wonderful arias and motets. But this time we decided to show, in particular, the qualities of his instrumental music and his virtuoso writing for the solo instruments."

Performing alongside Florentin are violinist Lilia Slavny on Baroque violin; Diego Nadra, a guest from Argentina, on Baroque oboe; and Benny Aghassi on Baroque bassoon - all of them outstanding musicians on the international Baroque scene.

The role of the accompanying basso continuo, perhaps the most important role of all, is in the hands of Baroque cellist Ira Givol. "Since Ira and I are the only ones in the group who live in Israel, we came together to organize the concerts here," explains Florentin.

Broad horizons

Academia Daniel was founded in 1995 by a number of leading Baroque instrumentalists in Israel - Kati Debretzeni, Dafna Ravid, Amos Boazson, Nima Ben David, Ofer Frenkel and Shalev Ad-El. Established to bring together excellent Israeli musicians from around the world, the group's achievements include hundreds of concerts throughout Europe and South America, 10 albums, numerous awards and collaborations with important Baroque singers such as Klaus Mertens, Barbara Schlick and Guy de Mey.

"In the field of Baroque, there is emigration from Israel of instrumentalists at the highest level, and it's always good to meet and make music," says Givol. "When Israelis play music together, the feeling is different. The musical language is shared, and everything is simpler and less buttoned-up."

Gathering the musicians together in Israel makes it possible to select some of Vivaldi's most beautiful and complex works. Most are considered concertos, even though they are actually sonatas for several instruments - among them, the Concerto in F Major, "Storm at Sea," a sonata for oboe; and the Concerto in G Minor. Altogether there are seven pieces, each more beautiful, stunning and brilliant than the last.

"The concert program is at a virtuoso level. It's very difficult to perform these works, and it's not that you acquire them for your repertoire and can pull them out and play them at short notice," says Florentin. "You have to practice a lot in order to master them, each time anew."

Adds Givol, "It's partly for this reason that people concentrate on so few of Vivaldi's works, and it's no wonder that those are the easiest of them. For example, very few people have heard his wonderful concertos for cello. They are simply too difficult."

A native of Thessaloniki, Florentin came to Israel before she turned 18 and studied at the Music Academy in Tel Aviv, where she completed bachelor's and master's degrees. Like many musicians specializing in Baroque instruments and the historical performance of early music, she continued her studies at the Royal Academy in The Hague. But Florentin's friends remained in Israel, and eventually she came back. "The endless wanderings around the world with a suitcase - I didn't think I could do that," she says.

Unlike Florentin, Givol didn't start out as a Baroque instrumentalist. Traveling the world with the classical piano Tel Aviv Trio, he performed a classical-modern repertoire in places like the Lincoln Center in New York, the Louvre in Paris and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. His repertoire later expanded to include contemporary music. But it was not until he was completing his advanced studies at the Music Academy in Cologne that Givol discovered the world of Baroque performance.

These broad horizons serve to highlight the difficulty of instrumentalists and vocal artists in Israel, and explain the mass exodus: "It's the isolation that makes things difficult," says Givol. "In Europe the space is wide open, without borders, and it is possible to get into the car or catch a train and go perform anywhere. Here that doesn't happen, and in this respect it is very difficult here. It's possible to earn a living and there is an audience - that's not the problem."

Music as symbol

Florentin and Givol also perform together in a Ladino ensemble, a repertoire in which Florentin grew up and in which she specializes. They have performed together across the world, including Greece. "It never happens that we play 'Adio Querida' and the audience isn't in tears," Givol says, referring to the song that has become a symbol among the Jews of Thessaloniki - a symbol of their deportation to the concentration camps during the Holocaust (Florentin's grandmother is herself a survivor of one of these camps ) and the survivors' return of to the city which, until their deportation, had been home to a vibrant Jewish culture.

There is also an educational aspect to the Viva Vivaldi project. In addition to its regular performances, Academia Daniel is also visiting music programs at high schools and performing Vivaldi's works there, as well as offering lectures and demonstrations of antique Baroque instruments.

"It's a mistake to think that the modern instruments, the ones you see in orchestras today, are an improvement and an advancement over the Baroque instruments, or that their development was part of an evolutionary process that rendered the antique instruments obsolete," says Givol. "They are simply instruments that serve a different aesthetic, instruments that are built differently and have a different sound."

"For example," says Givol, "the piano, Steinway's invention from the end of the 19th century, enabled a smooth transition from the instrument's lower register to its higher register, as well as a consistency of the character of the sound, no matter how high. But in earlier periods it was precisely this difference between the registers that people sought - the strength of the bass - in order to make it possible to distinguish between them and the soprano melody. In their day, the wind instruments, too, were the most sophisticated and innovative and they did their job wonderfully. The instruments of today don't do it any better."

Shifting winds

When Baroque concerts started to become popular again in Europe more than three decades ago, the phenomenon reflected what appeared to be a paradox of the times: The music was old, but the school that performed it was the hottest, most modern on the international musical scene.

"At one time it was that way but not today," says Givol. "The world of Baroque has already created a mainstream of its own. It used to be that they were the musicians in sandals and socks. That's how they would characterize the Baroque instrumentalists, as opposed to the traditional, buttoned-up and formal classicists. Today a Baroque orchestra looks just like any traditional orchestra, with suits and bow ties. It's a pity, but it also has advantages. This becoming part of the establishment has brought engaging with the music down to ground-level, to reality."

Recorder player Doret Florentin, left, and cellist Ira Givol are bringing Israeli musicians together to perform Vivaldi’s most beautiful and complex works.Credit: David Bachar