Sunday's stunning concert at the National Gallery of Art was all about Venice - and for good reason. The Vivaldi Project ensemble saluted the new exhibition in the East Building, "Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals," with music centered on a city that blossomed in the Renaissance and baroque periods as a commercial crossroads that lavished its wealth on arts of all kinds.

Covering music of the 17th and 18th centuries, the program Sunday featured works shimmering with the colorful luminescence that Canaletto lent his brilliant panoramas of Venice. With groups such as the Vivaldi Project, the tide is turning from approaching early music in a careful, overly literal reading of the notes to electrifying improvisation beyond the fanciful melodies already embedded in the scores. The group advances early-music performance practice by its finely drawn characterizations of each piece.

The musicians moved from the plaintive laments and playful fugues of a sinfonia by Alessandro Stradella to a Handel trio sonata and one of Vivaldi's Suonate da Camera a Tre, Op. 1, combining violinists Elizabeth Field and Allison Guest Edberg and cellist Stephanie Vial with continuo support by Joseph Gascho on the harpsichord and William Simms on the theorbo, an antique form of lute.

Pieces by Giovanni Legrenzi were marked by vigorous allegros and mellow adagios, and the musicians reveled in the dance rhythms of a sonata da camera by Antonio Caldara. Gascho raced through his witty parody of Handel's and Domenico Scarlatti's keyboard styles. The final Vivaldi ended the concert in a storm of electrifying improvisation impelled by a throbbing metrical pulse.

Porter is a freelance writer.