Viva Vivaldi -- and vive le difference.
The Viva Vivaldi concert Nov. 6 at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church showed that this Baroque-focused festival, now in its 38th season, dares to mix it up now and then.
In a change of pace, it featured two big-league "Vicarious Visionaries" -- Johann Sebastian Bach, and Ludwig van Beethoven. The Beethoven took up the entire second half. It was the "Emperor" Concerto, with pianist Alexander Aylward as soloist.
Aylward, a student at Boston College, is the son of Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra assistant concertmaster Ansgarius Aylward. He is a live one. Tall, rail-thin and impeccably turned out, he comes striding from the wings brimming with confidence and nerve. Turning toward the packed church, he made a speech about the concerto, quoting German philosophers. The speech ended on a sublime note, something along the lines of how the world changed with the famous first chords of this concerto -- "the chords you are about to hear," Aylward said.
High-minded introductions seem to be a trademark of his. There is a YouTube video of him playing a Beethoven's Concerto No. 1 at Viva Vivaldi another year, and he did the same thing. Anyway, on Sunday, his speech complete, he sat down at the piano. Marylouise Nanna gave the downbeat. The Ars Nova Musicians sounded the famous opening. And Aylward delivered the goods.
To say he was self-possessed is understating things. Playing from memory on Holy Trinity's big Steinway grand, he seemed to enjoy every minute. He was free with grand virtuoso gestures, body tilting back, hands flying over his head. He made eye contact with the audience.
You could argue he could have been more subtle here and there. The slow movement of this concerto should be transcendent, and I don't think Aylward is there yet. But he has a fine instinct for the music, and his performance, as broadly drawn as it was, was in good taste. I got the sense that he felt the music and understood what is exciting about it. Let's hear it for showmanship. Who needs another stiff, you know?
The orchestra appeared to be savoring the experience as much as he was. Nanna, chic and animated, conducted with a lilt. She made it easy to notice how the piano and the orchestra played off each other and answered each other. The musicians were all attentive to Aylward and in tune with his approach. That magical moment when the second movement ends, and then blasts into the third movement -- I expected that would be a thrill, and it was.
The evening's first half also featured high-wattage soloists.
Violinist Mari Jones had a pizzazz that carried over into the Vivaldi concerto she played. She played up the music's rhythm -- you could almost call it swing -- and in the exciting finale she projected a lot of joy. There was laughter when Jones, after her dramatic performance, returned to take her seat in the orchestra's violin section. Moments like that are part of the charm of these concerts.
Amy Glidden, the BPO's associate concertmaster, gave grace to an interesting Vivaldi concerto, "L'Inquietudine." The performance had a beguiling lightness, the bow of the violin dancing on the strings. The piece ended in a burst of majesty.
Oboist Paul Schlossman's performance of Bach's Concerto in A for oboe d'amore was a delight. This concerto had one of those beautiful romantic Bach slow movements, with meandering, chromatic, sensuous lines, and Schlossman played it with simple loveliness. The oboe's delicate tone sounded sweet in the church. My eyes kept wandering toward the statues of the angels.
This was Viva Vivaldi at its best. There was so much to enjoy and to remember.
Two concerts remain. At 6:30 p.m. Nov. 13, Nanna and the Ars Nova will join forces with the Buffalo Suzuki Strings, violinist Matthew Cone, cellist Drew Cone, and Benjamin Mekinulov, the son of BPO cellist Roman Mekinulov. This concert takes place at the Hellenic Orthodox Church, 146 W. Utica St.
And at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 20, Viva Vivaldi wraps up with a concert at First Presbyterian Church on Symphony Circle. Donna Lorenzo is the soloist in a concerto for viola d'amore, and BPO violinist Diana Sachs steps into the spotlight for a Vivaldi concerto nicknamed "Il Grosso Mogul."