“Gut strings are very temperamental”, said Monica Huggett. “They also have more character.”
Huggett, a renowned and internationally celebrated solo violinist, traded industrial strings early in her career against the characteristic set of cat gut strings of a baroque violin. It is those that she will make sing in the Chan Centre on May 1. For this event, the Portland Baroque Orchestra was invited by Early Music Vancouver (EMV) to play the unalterable Four Seasons.
After a 20-year career as a soloist and ensemble singer, Matthew White stopped in Seattle before settling in Vancouver as the artistic director of EMV. This year's ambitious program celebrates the blooming of early-music practitioners in Cascadia. “We feel like we have reached a kind of critical mass of talent in the Northwest now. The standard that we are able to achieve using regional artists is superlative,” said White. He invited Huggett and the Portland Baroque orchestra in the continuation of a partnership that started in 1982, when the violinist first came to play in Vancouver.
In the tradition of baroque music, Huggett will be leading while playing the violin. “The idea of a conductor is a much later idea,” said White. “In [the Four Seasons'] case the violin soloist in the original performance was probably Vivaldi himself.”
Conducting and being a soloist at the same time is no small feat, but Huggett can rely on her extensive knowledge of the piece as well as her lifelong experience of conducting. “I actually started leading orchestras when I was eight years old, and I have led orchestras all my life. I am pretty experienced at doing it now,” said Huggett, who will be 62 in May.
The Four Seasons, composed by Vivaldi between 1720 and 1725, remains a highly popular piece even among neophytes. “It has been used so much in popular culture,” said White. “You hear it in movies, it is used in advertisement ... I think the reason for that is that it is powerfully evocative music.”
Vivaldi's four concertos for violin are programatic music, music that evokes or mimics something extra-musical. With time, programatic music became more and more subtle and impressionistic, but in the Four Seasons, the ideas are clear in the images they convey. “When [Vivaldi] evokes a bird, you can definitely hear that in the violin,” said White. The piece is written as four sonnets, each evocative of its season. “You can sit there with the program and you will hear the sound of birds, brooks, thunder ... dance, a cuckoo, hornets, even a dog,” said White.
In the eyes of Huggett, the Four Seasons is more complex overall than other Vivaldi concertos. “[Vivaldi] put a lot of work into these pieces, and they are justifiably famous.... He changes tempo, he changes dynamics.” The key to playing Vivaldi's most famous piece may be the ability of the orchestra to act as they play it.
“In the baroque period, the musical gesture was often associated with a word,” White said, making the music “rhetorical” in that it is more speaking to a listener rather than singing to fill music halls that later music had to fill. This suits Huggett, who chose the baroque violin as a way to express herself more directly than in large orchestras. “I was known as a very good violinist who did not make a very big sound,” Huggett said about her time in the conservatoire. “I did not feel as if my voice counted very much [in a big orchestra section], I kind of felt lost.”
The Four Seasons will allow Huggett to act the theatrical parts of Vivaldi's work, such as the first movement of "Autumn."
“There is a lot of expression of drunkenness [in Autumn], so the tempo is very flexible, with drunk people falling about. Then they go to sleep, and I actually fall asleep on stage, and start snoring,” Huggett said.