Thursday 16 September 2021

VIVALDI'S FOUR SEASONS / Red Dot Baroque / Review


Red Dot Baroque

Esplanade Recital Studio

Thursday (9 September 2021)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 September 2021 with the title "Red Dot Baroque evokes the seasons' wonders with Vivaldi concertos".


One question is asked about attending live concerts during a Covid pandemic: Why bother, since there are many commercial recordings are available, not to mention ubiquitous YouTube videos? Red Dot Baroque, Singapore’s first professional period instrument ensemble, provided the best possible riposte 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 three hundred 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 simulate 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 a sound unlike any other, once heard and not easily forgotten.


The concert opened vibrantly with the short Concerto Alla Rustica. Cellist Leslie Tan established a sturdy rhythm to which violins entered in unison, a show of solidarity after which they would go on their own separate paths. There was a clue 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 locally-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 kampong 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, with free ornamentation and improvisation being encouraged. Hers was also a leisurely stroll in May, far cry from the frenetic versions most are accustomed to. While these liberties may not do in CD recordings, it however came across freshly-minted and with much immediacy when heard live.


Gabriel Lee had arguably the most virtuosic role in Summer, with mimicry of buzzing insects and a tempestuous rainstorm. In between these natural phenomena were also moments of bleakness and solitude which he captured most intuitively. Placida Ho’s account of Autumn saw a punch-drunk peasant slurring and stumbling, with hiccoughs simulated on her violin. This was musical imagery 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 a happiest possible interpretation of Winter. Gone was the icy snowfall, replaced by the reassuring warmth of a fireplace. He is an artist who knows only joy whenever he performs, and this infectiousness 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.    

Photos by Moonrise, with courtesy of Red Dot Baroque. 

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