Tim Page, my predecessor at The Washington Post, once said that the toughest assignment in music criticism was having to write 500 words about a performance of Vivaldi in a church basement — his point being that it was a worthy event, but there wasn’t much to say about it.
Times have changed, though. These days, historically informed performances have become HIP — the preferred early-music acronym — and ensembles dedicated to music of the baroque and before are some of the hottest tickets in town.
Take the Venice Baroque Orchestra, which came to the Kennedy Center’s Fortas Chamber Music Concerts on Monday night. Now in its 20th year, the group is one of the most adventurous and interesting of chamber ensembles, with a range of projects including, this season, a major performance of Vivaldi’s only surviving oratorio, “Juditha triumphans,” which it brought to Carnegie Hall last week (a concert the New York Times covered not in 500 words, but in fewer than 500 characters). At the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab, however, the group offered a whole evening of baroque concertos, mainly by Italian composers (though one sneaked in there by Charles Avison, an 18th-century British musician you probably have not heard of) and showed its mastery of its core repertoire in a vital, lively, varied evening.
The HIP approach breaks away from the reliance on purity of sound and the masterworks of the canon that emerged as the twin pillars of so-called classical music in the late 20th century. Early instruments, strung with gut strings and including things like lutes, have a chewy, tangy quality to their sound: Rather than listening in reverent awe, you’re drawn actively into a conversation between lightning-quick minds, as in Vivaldi’s B minor concerto for four violins and cello (R. 580), which darted from the Venice Baroque violinists’ fingers.
And canonical respect is hard to bring to a repertory that includes so many brilliant works. Vivaldi alone wrote more than 500 concertos, four of which were on Monday’s program, along with concerti grossi — works featuring a group of solo players — by Corelli (in D), Locatelli (in C minor), Geminiani (in D minor), the above-mentioned Avison (in D minor, inspired by Scarlatti), and, as an encore, Galuppi (in G). In a 15-member ensemble, every player effectively has something of a soloist’s character, though much heavy lifting did fall to the cellists, particularly Massimo Raccanelli Zaborra, who invested a lot of energy in his instrument’s furry sound. And the lutenist, Ivano Zanenghi, emerged as the class clown in a couple of off-the-cuff spoken exchanges between pieces with Andrea Marcon, the group’s founder, who led energetically, standing, at the harpsichord.
What the program did show, though, is that Vivaldi deserves his fame: All of his pieces had a particular spark and zing. There’s a reason his work has endured, and even more reason to move it out of the church basement and into the concert hall. If only we’d gotten to hear “Juditha,” as well.