When did dunking on “The Four Seasons” become the thing to do? Exhibit A: Last week, a friend asked me which concerts I was excited for this fall, and when I mentioned the Handel and Haydn Society doing “The Four Seasons,” she shook her head and told me she’d be passing on that one, with no regrets. Exhibit B: I recently asked another friend, this one new to classical concert-going, which pieces he already knew he liked, and he sheepishly admitted to loving “The Four Seasons.” This from a 20-something who could count on one hand the number of orchestral concerts he’d seen, and somehow he’d gotten the sense that “serious” classical music listeners were too sophisticated for Vivaldi’s enduring musical tableaux.
To the devil with that. “The Four Seasons” hasn’t stuck around for nothing. Some might scoff at its inclusion on milquetoast Baroque compilations and its paint-by-numbers imagery of birds, storms, and boozing peasants, as helpfully described in the sonnets that accompany each seasonal concerto. But look at all that it’s done since its post-WWII popularization by violinist Louis Kaufman, who made the first American recording in a 1947 midnight session with a small squad of New York Philharmonic players. It’s been in movies, commercials and too many figure skating programs to count. It has inspired arrangements by the Swingle Singers and the New Koto Ensemble of Tokyo (among many others), and entire reimaginings by tango titan Astor Piazzolla (A+) and minimalist film composer Max Richter (B-).
Is it still overplayed? Sure. Do we need to hear it every year, a la “Messiah?” Nah. Should it be relegated to the status of “crowd-pleaser,” a backhanded compliment implying it’s something for the true devotees to stoically endure? Absolutely not. Vivaldi’s concertos are show vehicles, and “The Four Seasons” might be the showiest of them all. Possibly the worst thing a performer can do with the piece is play it understatedly. If it sounds like background music, you’re doing it wrong. And fortunately for the Symphony Hall audience on Friday night, H+H concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky does not do background music. Anyone who wears a red ringmaster’s tailcoat on stage had better not.
Time flew by. Nosky led from center stage, swinging around to cue the ensemble players with a raised eyebrow or a quick nod. Tempi were vigorous but unhurried in the fast movements, slow enough to create a sense of languor without dragging in the Largos. “Autumn” dissolved into a comedic sketch; Nosky’s solo violin, playing a drunken reveler, erupted in dissonant bursts and at last dragged out a long diminuendo on a single note, and the soloist let her head and eyelids droop until another violinist prodded her with a bow. The first movement of “Winter” set the solo violin atop muted, crunchy chords from the ensemble, which made for an explosive contrast with the raging blizzard of a refrain from the full ensemble. “Did I tell you how much I’ve missed you?!” Nosky exclaimed from the stage as the audience took to its feet with a cheering uproar.
The concert lasted 90 minutes including intermission, making for an overjoyed but non-overwhelming reunion for ensemble and audience alike. Party music was the order of the day, beginning with excerpts from Handel’s well-traveled “Water Music.” (Full disclosure: Thanks to a public transit snafu, I wasn’t able to hear this one.) Most intriguing was the second piece of the first half, Jonathan Woody’s new Suite for Orchestra After the Works of Charles Ignatius Sancho — a man described by the British Library as a “writer, composer, shopkeeper and abolitionist” who was the first known person of African descent to vote in England.
Because most of Sancho’s surviving oeuvre consists of songs, minuets, country dances, and other very short works, they’re not performance ready as is for a large ensemble like H+H. Woody, a bass-baritone and composer, picked up what Sancho left and expanded five fragments into a full suite of Baroque-style dances, which H+H sailed through with stately panache and a hint of swagger.
It would have been wonderful if there was a bit more to the suite, especially the “Gigue,” which felt almost unfinished. But the excitement was not just about the piece itself, but what it represents. How many more composers, especially those of marginalized groups, may have been relegated to the back shelves and basements because their work requires some revisions or adaptations before it hits the music stand? Pieces “after the works of,” like Woody’s, represent one avenue of new life for these worthy melodies, and I eagerly await to see where it leads.
But in the meantime, Shonda Rhimes, if you’re reading this: Hire Woody to add some Sancho-style dances to the next season of “Bridgerton.” Those string quartet Taylor Swift covers only do so much.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
At Symphony Hall, Oct. 8. handelandhaydn.org
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.