Vivaldi's Four Seasons
Red Dot Baroque
Esplanade Recital Studio, last Thursday (Sept 9)
When it comes to attending live concerts during the Covid-19 pandemic, one question keeps getting asked: Why bother?
After all, there are many commercial recordings available, not to mention ubiquitous YouTube videos.
Red Dot Baroque, Singapore's first professional period instrument ensemble, provided the best possible riposte last week in four concerts devoted to the Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi.
The nine-member ensemble attempted to relive actual sounds heard in an intimate chamber setting some 300 years ago.
This was neither a big band with modern steel-stringed instruments found on many recordings, nor a common-garden string quartet surrounded by hundreds of candles, which at best simulates a musical experience.
Red Dot Baroque looks, feels and sounds like the real thing. Four violins, viola, cello, bass supported by theorbo (a long-necked lute) and harpsichord created an unforgettable sound unlike any other.
The concert opened vibrantly with the short Concerto Alla Rustica. Cellist Leslie Tan established a sturdy rhythm to which violins entered in unison, before going on their own separate paths, a divergence earlier hinted at in the brief slow movement when disparate instruments were highlighted in short individual phrases.
Before long, the concert's main work, the four violin concertos that make up Vivaldi's Four Seasons, took centrestage - but with a difference.
The oft-quoted sonnets by Vivaldi were replaced by newly commissioned poetry from Singapore-based philologist Sara Florian. Her clever verses, combining Venetian and Singaporean elements, preceded each of the seasons.
It was interesting to hear words like Supertree, kopi-o, Pulau Tekong and kampung in the mix, but that did little to influence the music's course.
The solos were shared by four violinists, beginning with Brenda Koh in Spring. It was clear from the outset that each soloist would not stick strictly to the written score and that free ornamentation and improvisation were encouraged.
Koh's was a leisurely stroll in May, a far cry from the frenetic versions most are accustomed to. While such liberties may not do in CD recordings, they came across as freshly minted and with much immediacy when heard live.
Gabriel Lee had arguably the most virtuosic role in Summer, with the mimicry of buzzing insects and a tempestuous rainstorm. In between these natural phenomena were also moments of bleakness and solitude, which he captured intuitively.
Placida Ho's account of Autumn saw a punch-drunk peasant slurring and stumbling, with hiccoughs simulated on her violin. The musical imagery was laid on thick with a shovel, as were the startling dissonances revealed in the slow movement.
Finally, Red Dot Baroque founder Alan Choo completed the journey with the happiest possible interpretation of Winter. Gone was the icy snowfall, replaced by the reassuring warmth of a fireplace.
Choo evokes joy whenever he performs, and this rubbed off on his entire ensemble. So why do we attend live concerts? In concerts, joy - an all-too-precious commodity - can be found in abundance.