Kraemer mixes familiar Vivaldi with rarities in elemental Music of the Baroque program

Tue Nov 17, 2009 at 3:03 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Elizabeth Wallfisch

Nicholas Kraemer, principal guest conductor of Music of the Baroque, knew what he was up against.

On Sunday night the ensemble was presenting a program titled “Earth, Wind and Fire” for an audience that filled the 900 seats of Evanston’s First United Methodist Church. The 20-plus musicians, along with guest violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch, were about to launch into Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

“Some of you have heard it,’’ he said, with a sly smile. “In the supermarket perhaps? While waiting on the phone?” His introductory remarks were light-hearted, but for serious musicians like Kraemer and Music of the Baroque, Vivaldi’s done-to-death set of four violin concerti poses a considerable challenge. How do you bring something new to music so familiar that it’s become a kind of aural wallpaper?

The answer was obvious a few minutes into the Spring portion of the piece. You engage an exuberantly personable, technically stunning soloist. You dig into Vivaldi’s raw-edged dissonances and emphatic rhythms. You leave Baroque elegance behind and go for the high-energy, vividly colored images of summer thunder storms and wintery blasts.

Thematic programming can be oppressively predictable, and Earth, Wind and Fire isn’t exactly a novel concept. But Kraemer and his players truly pushed the envelope in their program’s wildly dramatic depiction of the earth’s basic elements. In addition to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the concert included sections from Telemann’s Wassermusik (Water Music) and selections from Les Elemens (The Elements) by a lesser-known French Baroque composer, Jean-Fery Rebel. Each of the pieces had multiple, relatively short movements, and Kraemer split them up, scattering a movements from the Telemann and Rebel between pairs of the Vivaldi’s concerti.

Wallfisch, a native of Australia who has a flourishing international career, took the stage with a brio that made it clear she would pour her outsized soul into Vivaldi’s complex music. She made her MOB debut in February 2008 as conductor and violinist, and she seemed entirely at home with the musicians and Kraemer, who served as harpsichordist during The Four Seasons. Responding to the smooth, full-throated song of two MOB violinists in the Spring concerto, her tone was frighteningly fragile. She clearly evoked a bird sensing an approaching storm. In the Winter concerto, her headlong, reeling melodies were as off-kilter and driven as a pedestrian pummeled by December winds off Lake Michigan.

MOB’s audience was certainly familiar with The Four Seasons, but Telemann’s Water Music and Rebel’s The Elements may have been bracing revelations for many. As Kraemer pointed out in his short introductions, these composers had no problem with dissonance. The Chaos section of The Elements opened with metallic, chugging chords that sounded like a modern locomotive gathering steam. In the fast sections of Telemann’s Water Music, the music had all the rough-hewn good cheer of a folk-style hoedown.

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