28 February 2012
Published in the Dominion Post, by Tom Cardy
Italy's legendary chamber music ensemble I Musici, who play Wellington tonight in their first tour of New Zealand, owe a debt of gratitude to one of their countrymen. The man is Antonio Vivaldi and his much-loved The Four Seasons.
Vivaldi composed The Four Seasons in 1723. At the time his music was criticised by his contemporaries as eccentric - and after his death much of it lay forgotten.
But by the 1930s Vivaldi was being embraced and appreciated again. In 1950 The Four Seasons was published. It's now one of the most popular recorded works in classical music - with more than 150 versions to date. But I Musici, formed in 1952, were one of the first ensembles to record it and make it famous. Their 1955 recording has sold more than 25 million copies.
It wouldn't be until 1989, when British violinist Nigel Kennedy tackled The Four Seasons, that another recording had an impact.
So it's no surprise to be told by I Musici's current leader Antonio Anselmi what he played when he auditioned to join the ensemble in 2003: "They asked me if I wanted to play an audition and I played The Four Seasons with them," he says, then laughs. Anselmi says it was an unusual situation. In 60 years the 12-member ensemble (six violins, two violas, two cellos, one double bass, one harpsichord) has rarely had competitions or auditions for new members.
Like many Italians, Anselmi, who plays violin, grew up very aware of the Rome-based ensemble's status. "I was honoured and I wanted [to join] because the ensemble is so very, very prestigious. To play with them is, of course, for an Italian violinist, very interesting. They have made history in the last 60 years with Italian music, not just in Italy but everywhere."
The last founding member of the ensemble, double bass player Lucio Buccarella, was still with the ensemble when Anselmi joined. "He was in great shape and he was, I would say, somehow, the leader of the group. He had incredible energy and he was almost 80 years old. He stayed there for another three or four years."
Anselmi learned a lot about the ensemble's history by talking with Buccarella. Buccarella told him that I Musici was fortunate to have formed at the time that it did. "It was a very interesting period for the country. The Second World War had ended and they played for [great Italian maestro] Arturo Toscanini. He said 'you are great, you are fantastic. You will have a great career. Keep practising'.
"At that time in Italy there was this need people really needed to listen to good music and to listen to good concerts."
For the ensemble's first tour of New Zealand their programme includes Rossini, Donizetti, Paganini and two works written by famed Italian film composers Nino Rota (best known for The Godfather) and Lius Bacalov (Il Postino). Notably, they won't be playing The Four Seasons, even though their recording continues to pop up all over the place.
So has the ensemble tired of playing it? No way, says Anselmi. "It's a great piece. It's a masterpiece. It's very beautiful music and it's a very typical example of the music of the 18th century which came directly from the theatre. Vivaldi and all those guys of that old Italian school were geniuses. They were so incredibly talented and they were great violinists. You can always discover and re-discover new details, new things. Technically, musically, artistically, it's an endless job."
I Musici - Serenata Italiana, Michael Fowler Centre, Tuesday, February 28, 7.30pm. The ensemble also perform at Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North, Wednesday, February 29; Municipal Theatre, Napier, March 1, and TSB Showplace New Plymouth , March 3.
- © Fairfax NZ News