It all began with an evening of music and magic during Zankel Hall's opening festival in September 2003. The success of the concert of baroque music performed by Ton Koopman, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, and countertenor Andreas Scholl sealed the deal on the idea of a baroque concert series. "We were so extremely happy with the experience all around," says Carnegie Hall's Senior Director and Artistic Advisor Ara Guzelimian, "that we all looked at each other and said, 'Early music ensembles are a natural in Zankel Hall.'"
This impression was reinforced by critic James Oestreich who, in his New York Times review the next day, greeted the arrival of a new hall that was welcoming to early music. "There is no question from what locally based groups have done‹Lincoln Center, the unfortunately short-lived Gotham Foundation series, the New York Collegium‹that there is an audience for early music in New York," says Guzelimian. "But, until Zankel Hall opened, we simply did not have a space of the right scale. Our venues accomodated under 270 in Weill Recital Hall to over 2800 in Isaac Stern Auditorium. A 600-seat hall is to my mind just the right size. There is an enormous clarity and intimacy of sound that makes a lot of sense for baroque music."
The new three-concert series, Baroque Unlimited, focuses on three distinguished period-instrument orchestras for its inaugural season. One is Philharmonia Baroque, which will perform with soprano Lisa Saffer on February 23, 2005. A Bay Area institution since 1981 and the subject of more than two dozen recordings, Philharmonia Baroque was honored as Musical America's Ensemble of the Year for 2004. "It was important to us to include an American group," says Guzelimian, "in the interest of doing our part to sustain the activity of the American period-instrument groups." Another priority was to reach for some new and exciting elements, such as the first American appearance on May 8 of the Academie für Alte Musik Berlin, a fixture on the European festival scene since its founding in 1982. And this month, on November 29, the curtain rises on the series with a provocative program from the new kids on the block: the Venice Baroque Orchestra.
Founded by harpsichordist and musicologist Andrea Marcon in 1997, VBO moved to the forefront of the Venetian musical community when it was invited to be part of the traditional Christmas broadcast from the venerable Basilico San Marco in 1998. VBO serves as resident ensemble at the Accademia di San Rocco‹a cultural center of Venice since the 16th century‹as well as the annual Feste Musicali per San Rocco, Venice's international baroque festival. Having checked off several successful recordings with Sony Classical, VGO's inaugural project with Deutsche Grammophon will also be the subject of its inaugural concert at Zankel Hall: the 1726 Venetian serenata Andromeda liberata.
A serenata may be loosely defined as a dramatic cantata, performed sometimes with costumes and modest scenery. Many were written to celebrate the birthday of a person of rank. Andromeda liberata, which gathered dust for 275 years in the library of the Venice Conservatory, was neglected for the reason that no one could prove who wrote it. "Like many archival compositions with no composer's name‹just 'anonimo'‹it is very difficult to find an audience even if the music is good, as in this case," states Marcon. But then, in 2002, Olivier Fourès, a diligent young musicologist from France, made the breakthrough discovery that an aria in the piece, "Sovvente il sole," is unmistakably the work of Antonio Vivaldi.
Moreover, says Marcon, the aria is "the only handwritten autograph by Vivaldi that remains in Venice. Most of his work is in the library of Turin, or spread all over Europe."
Instead of rushing to claim Andromeda for the Vivaldi archive, however, Vivaldi scholars hastened to disown it. The reason is understandable to any musicologist: it cannot be proven beyond a doubt that the entire piece is Vivaldi's work. "Musicologists don't want to risk the claim, which is fine," says Marcon. "But there is no more reason to wait to publish this piece. It is a great serenata, and compared with other serenatas of the time, it is a really important work."
If Andromeda liberata is not entirely the work of Vivaldi, then who did write it? It may have been a collaborative project of the top Venetian masters of the time, certainly including Giovanni Albinoni and possibly the Marcello brothers‹Alessandro and Benedetto‹as well. This sort of "pasticcio" or co-authorship was a common practice in the baroque era, one that allowed composers to revive parts of old works for use in a new combination or context.
One thing Marcon feels is certain: Vivaldi would never have been caught collaborating with minor composers. If Andromeda is indeed a pasticcio, it is the work of the top players in Venice. All of which is to say that this is a win-win situation for audiences. "The aria 'Sovvente il sole' is for violin, which means Vivaldi played it himself," says Marcon. "I cannot imagine another soloist playing it. Is the serenata completely by Vivaldi? Is it done by the most innovative Venetian composers of the time? We may never have all the answers, but this piece is surely the greatest serenata of the early 18th century in Venice‹and overall, one of the greatest of all Italian serenatas.
"This is an example of a piece shrouded in mystery, which makes it a fascinating story. Its existence proves how much music we still have to discover. It's great music‹so alive," says Marcon. "You have sometimes to work with feelings and intuitions. It is part of our inspiration. Not everything in life can be proved."
Marcia Young is a New York-based freelance writer and on-air personality for the classical channels of Sirius Satellite Radio.