By Ted AYALA
Two centuries and the entire expanse of the Atlantic Ocean stand between composers Antonio Vivaldi and Astor Piazzolla. Yet despite the seemingly wide chasm of time and space separating them, both composers are borne aloft on the same current of warm Mediterranean lyricism, a current that soars from the Baroque courts and opera houses of Mantua and Venice into the greasy, hard-scrabble back alleys of mid-20th century Buenos Aires – with some twists into Bartók’s Magyar folklorism and the fastidiously neat surfaces of Nadia Boulanger’s post-Stravinskian neo-classicism along the way.
Their works also share another trait in common: bold Italianate sensuality. It was a trait that the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, under music director Sonia Marie de León de Vega, highlighted with equal boldness in its performance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and Piazzolla’s “Las cuatro estaciones porteñas” on Sunday.
Piazzolla’s music – and the man himself – are testament to perhaps the signal event in modern Argentina’s cultural history: a 150 years long wave of Italian immigration to that country that continues to this day, leaving an indelible mark on its art, literature and especially its music.
Alternating between the Italian’s and the Argentine’s musical response to each season, the program also alternated between its front-desk violinists. Especially attractive was the playing of Yi-Huan Zhao, the orchestra’s concertmaster, who beguiled the audience with his songful, honeyed tone and pellucid phrasing.
There is much in Piazzolla of the hothouse, the dangerous, even the sleazy. The pungent musk of oily bodies writhing against one another in penumbral darkness, which in turn mingles with cheap booze, and stagnant air pervades much of the music.
Under de León de Vega, the orchestra played up those elements, digging in to the very hilt. It also spotlit the dazzling technical élan of the orchestra’s string body – to say nothing of their ability to bridge together Italy and Argentina, 18th century and 20th century into something cogent, stirring and exciting.