Review: Venice Baroque Orchestra at UCSB’s Campbell Hall

Arts & Lectures Presented the Esteemed Early-Music Ensemble on February 6

The spirit of Antonio Vivaldi was practically visible under the nearly ideal conditions that prevailed in Campbell Hall on Thursday night. The orchestra was not just Italian, but Venetian, harking back to the very birthplace of the esteemed “Red Priest.” Moreover, the Venice Baroque Orchestra (VBO) is an early-music ensemble, with instruments and techniques from back in the day, meaning mellow gut strings; endpin-less cellos clamped between knees instead of resting on the floor; strange narrow short bows; stout wooden oboes with open holes; and French horns with no valves. It also means straight tones, with only the most sparing use of ornamental vibrato. (As conductor Andrea Marcon put it: “Ketchup is good as a condiment, but that doesn’t mean you put it on everything.”)

I say “nearly ideal” because Campbell Hall is really too large a venue for an early-music chamber ensemble of 18 players. Gut strings simply don’t carry like metal moderns, leaving the sonar edge absent of its bright overtones but the blend still soft and sumptuous. Nevertheless, the concert was a diatonic crowd-pleaser. The bill included almost all Vivaldi concerti, one sinfonia, and works by Francesco Maria Veracini and Francesco Geminiani. The VBO excels at delivering a rocking Vivaldi, for whom music clearly meant dance and rhythmic drive.

Another delight was the variety of able soloists, including several pairings. Wind player Michele Favaro painted the contemplation and frenzy of the night in Concerto in G Minor for Flute, “La Notte.” Alessandro Denabian and Elisa Bognetti finessed embouchure-only trills and other lip athletics in Vivaldi’s Concerto in F Major for Two Horns. Daniele Bovo and Giordano Pegoraro took their turn with competitive sawing in Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor for Two Cellos. Shai Kribua and Favaro were featured on one of only two non-Vivaldian works, Veracini’s Overture No. 6 in G minor for Two Oboes. But the surprise favorite of the evening was Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Major for Sopranino Recorder, featuring Anna Fusek, one of only three women in the current VBO mix. Fusek, a violinist the rest of the night, traded in her fiddle for a tiny wooden recorder, which seemed almost comically small in the hands of the tall woman. But moments later, Fusek revealed phenomenal virtuosity, not merely balanced registers and clean double-tonguing in fast passages, but masterful phrasing and brilliant ornamentation in the slow Largo.

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