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The daily newspaper of classical music



28 December, 2001


Grace Notes

By Joe McLellan, classical music critic emeritus of The Washington Post



Two masterpieces of program music, closely related although they were composed nearly three centuries apart, will receive a brilliant performance, Jan. 1 on PBS.

In a program titled "Seasons of Life," from the acoustically and visually striking Kleinhans Hall in
Buffalo, New York, the Buffalo Philharmonic, under music director JoAnn Falletta, presents interpretations of Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and Mark O'Connor's The American Seasonsthat are analytically precise and lyrically soaring - the kind of performances composers dream of.

And on this program, one of the composers participates.

Vivaldi was, of course, unavailable for the program, but his picture is shown in the introduction, along with pictures of 18th-century Venice, a page of his score showing the words he wrote to explain the music, and quick glimpses of seasonal changes in various landscapes.

O'Connor has been very busy as both violinist and composer since he joined cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer for Sony's Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey recordings, But he found time not only to play as soloist in his American Seasons (music precisely tailored to his performing style) but to discuss the symbolic and philosophical implications in each of the work's movements.

O'Connor goes beyond Vivaldi's vivid, uncomplicated description of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter to encompass the seasons of a human life, from birth and childhood (Spring) through old age (Winter). Each of the four movements is imbued with the flavor of a particular age - adolescence, coming of age, maturity - as he explains in detailed, analytic discussions before each movement. Superimposed on the theme of the seasons of the year is that of the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech, beginning with "All the world's a stage," in Shakespeare's As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII).

To enhance the color of the concerto's essentially classical forms, he uses a variety of crossover styles - folk, blues, Irish jigs and reels and swing. His discussions, as well as his virtuoso solo performance with Falletta's sensitive partnership, give this performance an added dimension. His solo cadenza in the final movement, "Winter," is a brilliant display of technique and a summation of his previous musical statements.


Vivaldi's commentary on the changing times of year was published in the score of The Four Seasons in the form of four sonnets closely correlated with the music and printed under the relevant passages in the score. This might be considered an early experiment in multi-media performance art, and the original impetus is neatly picked up by Falletta and her violin soloist, Catherine Cho.

Before the performance of each concerto, they discuss picturesque details in the music -- birds singing, storms raging, a shepherd sleeping while his dog stands guard, peasants dancing with bagpipes, a fox hunt, people sliding on ice, and the special comfort of sitting by a fire while a cold rain falls outside.

As various little scenes in the music are described before each concerto, clips from the performance are shown, helping the viewer to recognize what is happening in the music at any given moment. This recognition is further helped by excellent camera work that directs the audience's view constantly to where the action is most interesting.

Above all, what Vivaldi had in mind is made clear by the simple but effective device of printing the words of his sonnet at the bottom of the screen as the music progresses. This performance is a model of how a piece of descriptive music can be analyzed for a general audience.

Unfortunately, to fit into PBS's 90-minute time slot, two of Vivaldi's movements - the first movements of "Summer" and "Autumn" - had to be left out of the telecast. These restrictions do not apply to digital video discs, however, and some enterprising record company should restore the missing movements and issue them on DVD. Such an issue would be equally valuable for education and for pure enjoyment. There may be copyright problems for O'Connor, whose concerto is already recorded by Sony, but Vivaldi has long been out of copyright. With all the recordings of The Four Seasonson the market, I thought there was no room for another one. I was wrong.