The world of baroque music — with its courtly manners and faint aroma of wig powder — may have seemed, in the past, like a rather staid place. But a slew of adventurous and hard-charging new ensembles has changed all that, and few have been more exciting than the Venice Baroque Orchestra, which brought its vivid and incisive playing to Dumbarton Oaks on Sunday night.
The evening was devoted largely to Vivaldi, and the focus on a single composer — featuring fully six of his concertos — might have become a little wearing on the ears. But from the opening notes of the Concerto in G minor, RV 577, the 18-member ensemble, under the direction of Andrea Marcon, found almost limitless worlds of drama and color to explore.
Playing on period instruments, pitching a pleasantly astringent string section against the plaintive warble of oboes, the woody, dove-like cooing of recorders, and the delicate underpinning of harpsichord and theorbo, the ensemble’s Vivaldi ranged from riveting to flat-out explosive. There’s a wildness in Vivaldi’s music that makes it so exciting, a sense of barely controlled fury in his huge, cascading waves of sound. But there’s also a heart-breaking vulnerability at its core, and the Venice players balanced them to perfection.
Although the focus was on Vivaldi, the ensemble also dispatched Handel’s stately Concerto Grosso in B-flat, Op. 3, No. 3 without incident, and it turned in a wonderfully deft and playful reading of Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D, Op. 6, No. 4. But the most spectacular playing of the evening came in the arrangement of two works by Vivaldi and J.S. Bach by Anna Fusek, one of the group’s recorder players. Playing a sopranino recorder known as a “flautino,” Fusek turned in a virtuosic tour de force, soulful in its central Largo movement and almost impossibly agile in the closing Giga, which seemed to approach the velocity and weightlessness of light.