The concept of “historically informed performance” cannot possibly conjure up dusty, antiquarian associations for anyone who attended this mid-week performance of the Handel and Haydn Society. Under the dynamic leadership of concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, the chamber ensemble of 20 paid homage to the violin with works by Arcangelo Corelli, his students Pietro Locatelli and Francesco Gemininiani, the latter’s English student Charles Avison, and finally the great master Antonio Vivaldi, in a program titled Inspired by Italy.
The tradition of historically informed performance uses period instruments, small orchestras, and special techniques to approximate the composer’s intended sound. The chamber ensemble plays standing (except for cello, lute, and keyboards) and is conducted by the concertmaster. The brilliant Canadian-born violinist Nosky is, however, anything but traditional; dressed in trousers and tails, she has short, punk-tufted hair that’s dyed bright red. A nimble sprite with a fiddler’s flair, Nosky offers a unique and persuasive vision.
From the initial fanfare of Locatelli’s Introduttione in D Major came the recognizable features of Italian Baroque: the harpsichord-punctuated downbeats, the repetition of simple themes that climb a harmonic ladder into joyous climaxes, and scale motifs that revolve and echo in great growing atmospheric chords. The concerto grosso form dominated the first half and featured multiple short solos by the violinists and cellists. The evening was most memorable for its refashioning of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the sections of which were joined together with whimsical impromptus by Nosky. Some violin solos, like the Adagio from “Summer,” included bluesy bent tones, and a sense of dramatic silence that heightened anticipation. The ensemble staccato beats that introduced “Winter” were sharp, guttural, and wonderfully earthy in their complex timbre. All said, a format rooted in history led to fresh discoveries in the present moment, which is the only place to hear great music.