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07 Jul

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons



Apollo’s Fire

Named for the Greek god of music and the sun, Apollo’s fire “burst onto the scene with dazzling style” (Cleveland Plain Dealer) a quarter century ago.  Now this revelatory Baroque chamber orchestra brings Vivaldi’s treasured Seasons straight from Tanglewood to us!

Cleveland’s revolutionary Baroque orchestra, Apollo’s Fire, with founder and director Jeannette Sorrell, present Vivaldi’s beloved concertos as the revolutionary acts of musical storytelling they were meant to be – bringing Vivaldi’s pictorial descriptions to life. If you thought you knew the Four Seasons, be prepared for surprises! The program also features duelling cellists in the Red Priest’s stormy Concerto for Two Cellos. Hear why Jeannette calls Vivaldi the “rock n’ roll composer of the 18th century!”



Marco Uccellini

La Bergamasca, arr. Sorrell

Antonio Vivaldi

Violin Concerto in E Major, RV 269, ‘La Primavera’ (‘Spring’)

Violin Concerto in g minor, RV 315, ‘L’estate’ (‘Summer’)

Concerto in g minor for two cellos, RV 531

Violin Concerto in F Major, RV 293, ‘L’autumno’ (‘Autumn’)

Violin Concerto in f minor, RV 297, ‘L’inverno’ (‘Winter’)

Trio Sonata in d minor, RV 63, ‘La Folia’, arr. Sorrell



A Priest and Some Orphans Make Revolutionary Music

by Jeannette Sorrell

One day when Vivaldi (the Redhead Priest) was saying Mass, a musical theme came into his mind.  He at once left the altar where he was officiating and repaired to the sacristy to write out his theme, then he came back to finish the Mass.  He was reported to the Inquisition, which luckily looked on him as a musician, that is, as a madman, and merely forbade him to say Mass from that time forward.   — P. L. de Boisgelou, 1800


By around 1700, Venice was already a tourist destination.  The glittering floating city was full of European princes and British aristocrats, attracted by the lavish spectacles, the eight opera houses, and… the over 10,000 elegant prostitutes.  The city maintained several very large religious orphanages for its several thousand illegitimate and orphaned girls (the daughters of aristocrats who had amorous adventures).

And so it was that when a young priest named Antonio Vivaldi failed to cut the mustard, the church elders decided to send him to one of the orphanages, where he could be useful as a music teacher.  The famous story relayed by Boisgelou (quoted above) has fascinated music-lovers for centuries. What led to Vivaldi’s sudden exit during Mass?  Here is his own explanation, in a letter of 1737:

When I had been ordained a priest for a year or a bit more, I discontinued saying Mass, having had to leave the altar without completing it because of a chest ailment…that has burdened me since birth.  For this reason I nearly always stay home, and I only go out in a gondola because I can no longer walk.

However, Vivaldi’s statement is not credible in view of his hectic travel schedule as impresario, conductor and entrepreneur throughout Europe.  The view of Mr. Boisgelou, was shared by other writers of the time:  Vivaldi’s ambitions lay in the music world, not the priesthood.

The Church leaders wisely sent their redhead priest to the Ospedale della Pietà, one of the four religious orphanages with an extraordinary emphasis on music.  The girls at the orphanage played and studied music – and little else – all day.  The orphanage had several orchestras of different levels.  Vivaldi became the music master and composer for the most elite orchestra – the one whose public concerts every Sunday drew aristocratic tourists from far and wide.


Imagine this:

On a Sunday afternoon, the chapel of the Pietà is packed with well-to-do Venetians and distinguished foreign visitors.  They peer in fascination at the gallery above, where an orchestra of about 40 girls performs the latest concertos of their music-master, Antonio Vivaldi.  The prete rosso, or “Redhead Priest,” is now in his 40s and celebrated throughout Europe.  But perhaps he is not as famous as these orphan girls for whom he composes.  The girls give world-class virtuoso performances.  Their Sunday concerts (technically church services) are the greatest tourist attraction of Venice.  The girls, dressed in white, are partly screened from view by a wrought-iron lattice, much to the chagrin of the audience.

There is rustling in the crowd as a favorite young soloist, Anna Maria del Violino, takes her place in front of the orchestra.  But before she begins to play, Vivaldi unexpectedly reads aloud – a poem about Spring.  Then the performance begins, with music that seems stunningly modern. Bird-calls, thunder, and even the barking of a sheepdog are all brilliantly depicted in the music.  The crowd has never heard music telling a story in such a detailed way. The solo violin part played by Signorina Anna Maria is formidable.

Following the performance, Anna Maria and Maestro Vivaldi are both greeted by ecstatic coughing and shuffling from the crowd (who are not allowed to applaud at this “church service”). Several wealthy gentlemen make their way to the iron screen to proffer marriage proposals to Anna Maria and a few of the prettiest girls.

*   *   *

Vivaldi, in these concertos for his young protégés, was the great developer of ritornello form – the form that became the model for concerto-writing by all European composers of the century, including J.S. Bach.  The Italian word “ritornello” means something that returns.  The same word is used to mean the refrain in pop music – and indeed, Vivaldi’s ritornellos convey the bold and driving sense of rhythm and melody that is more commonly associated with pop music.  After all, he was writing for teenagers.

In 1725 Vivaldi published a collection of twelve concertos titled Il cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Inventione – The Contest Between Harmony and Invention.  With this curious title, he unleashed a revolutionary question:  should music simply be about harmony, or could it serve to illustrate inventive ideas, events, moods, natural scenes, etc.?  Vivaldi set out to prove that it could do both.  The first four concertos of the collection, titled Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons), are virtuoso demonstrations of music in the service of storytelling – in this case, the story of Nature and her various moods.

Though Vivaldi had written music in imitation of Nature before, he took the art to new heights this time, supplying sonnets to clarify the meaning of the music.  Scholars generally believe that the sonnets were composed by Vivaldi himself, as they do not seem to be the work of a trained poet. The “Spring” concerto features bird calls, murmuring brooks, and the famous “barking dog” (represented by boisterous violas).  The third movement is a delightful peasant dance using a drone in the bass to suggest the musettes or bagpipes associated with outdoor festivities.

The “Summer” concerto is a brilliant evocation of hot summer days in Italy – sighing in the heat, the buzzing of flies and wasps, and a stunning depiction of a thunderstorm.  Anyone who has been in Italy during a summer storm will appreciate how the torrent of cascading violin scales evokes the onslaught of rain when the clouds burst.

The “Autumn” concerto concerns the merry gatherings of peasants celebrating the harvest – including a fair amount of drinking.  While the peasants sleep off their wine in the second movement, we are awakened in the third movement to join a hunting party.  Animal lovers, be warned:  this movement includes gun-shots and squeals of the desperate animal. The poor creature finally gives up his spirit in a lightly floating violin arpeggio, immediately followed by the return of the jolly hunting theme.

In the “Winter” concerto, Vivaldi partly dispenses with ritornello form in order to relate the details of winter life:  we begin stiff with cold, then the howling wind appears, and the famous chattering teeth (violins playing staccato repeated notes, very high and fast).  In the second movement we experience a more typical Venetian winter:  drizzling rain, brought to life by pizzicato violins.  The third movement begins with slipping and sliding on the ice, and suddenly the orchestra interrupts with jagged intervals, signaling that the ice has broken right in front of us.  A quick series of descending arpeggios in the violin conveys attempts to get up from the ice and walk, with plenty of stumbling.  A brief respite comes from the gentle spring breeze in the upper strings, soon interrupted with the return of the fierce North Wind.

The role of the performer as an animated and improvisatory storyteller was fundamental to baroque performance, and especially to Vivaldi’s music. The notes on the page exist to convey an emotion or mood or event, and the performer’s job is to evoke those feelings in the listener. Thus these concertos are a fresh experience for us each night – always an adventure.


The Concerto for Two Cellos was probably premiered by two teenage cellists at the orphanage.  It is a wonderful example of Vivaldi’s driving rock-n-roll rhythm, as the cellists engage in a duel that is alternately playful and fiery.  The beautiful middle movement is a poetic dialogue with haunting and exotic harmonies.

Vivaldi had a meteoric career, achieving Beatles-level popularity and then crashing to complete oblivion. It is not surprising that his concertos are by far the most popular pieces in the classical repertoire.  Inspired by the youthful energy of his young interpreters, he imbued his concertos with the same sense of driving rhythm and earthy harmonies that we all respond to in rock music.  We in Apollo’s Fire think of him as the rock-n-roll composer of the 18th century.

About Apollo’s Fire

“The U.S.A.’s hottest baroque band”  — Classical Music Magazine, UK

“Led by a brilliant harpsichordist, Jeannette Sorrell, the ensemble exudes stylish energy –

a blend of scholarship and visceral intensity.”  — GRAMOPHONE


Named for the classical god of music and the sun, Apollo’s Fire was founded in 1992 by the award- winning young harpsichordist and conductor Jeannette Sorrell.  Sorrell envisioned an ensemble dedicated to the baroque ideal that music should evoke the various Affekts or passions in the listeners. Apollo’s Fire is a collection of creative artists who share Sorrell’s passion for drama and rhetoric.

Hailed as “one of the pre-eminent period-instrument ensembles” (The Independent, London), Apollo’s Fire made its London debut in 2010 in a sold-out concert at Wigmore Hall, with a BBC broadcast.  Subsequent European tours took place in 2011, 2014, and 2015.  European performances include sold-out concerts at the BBC Proms in London (with live broadcast across Europe), the Aldeburgh Festival (UK), Madrid’s Royal Theatre, Bordeaux’s Grand Théàtre de l’Opéra, and major venues in Lisbon, Metz (France), and Bregenz (Austria), as well as concerts on the Birmingham International Series (UK) and the Tuscan Landscapes Festival (Italy).

AF’s London 2014 concert was praised as “an evening of superlative music-making… the group combines European stylishness with American entrepreneurialism” (THE TELEGRAPH, UK).  This concert was chosen by the TELEGRAPH as one of the “Best 5 Classical Concerts of 2014.”

North American tour engagements include the Tanglewood Festival (sold-out debut in 2015), the Aspen Music Festival, the Boston Early Music Festival series, the Library of Congress, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), and major venues in Toronto, Los Angeles and San Francisco.  The ensemble has performed two major U.S. tours of the Monteverdi Vespers (2010 and 2014) and a 9-concert tour of the Brandenburg Concertos in 2013.  Apollo’s Fire is signed to Columbia Artists Management (CAMI) for exclusive representation in North and South America, and is managed in the U.K. by Intermusica (London).  Upcoming engagements include debuts at the Ravinia Festival (July) and Carnegie Hall (March 2018).

At home in Cleveland, Apollo’s Fire enjoys sold-out performances at its subscription series, which has drawn national attention for creative programming.  Apollo’s Fire has released 25 commercial CDs and currently records for the British label AVIE. Since the ensemble’s introduction into the European CD market in 2010, the recordings have won rave reviews in the London press: “a swaggering version, brilliantly played” (THE TIMES) and “the Midwest’s best-kept musical secret is finally reaching British ears” (THE INDEPENDENT). Seven of the ensemble’s CD releases have become best-sellers on the classical Billboard chart.


Jeannette Sorrell, Artistic Director, Conductor & Harpsichordist

“Under the inspired leadership of Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo’s Fire has become one of the pre-eminent period-instrument ensembles, causing one to hear baroque material anew.”  


Jeannette Sorrell is recognized internationally as one of today’s most creative early-music conductors.  She has been credited by the U.K.’s BBC Music Magazine for forging “a vibrant, life-affirming approach to the re-making of early music… a seductive vision of musical authenticity.”

Hailed as “one of the world’s finest Baroque specialists” (St Louis Post- Dispatch), Sorrell was one of the youngest students ever accepted to the prestigious conducting courses of the Aspen and the Tanglewood music festivals.  She studied conducting under Robert Spano, Roger Norrington and Leonard Bernstein, and harpsichord with Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam. She won both First Prize and the Audience Choice Award in the 1991 Spivey International Harpsichord Competition, competing against over 70 harpsichordists from Europe, Israel, the U.S., and the Soviet Union.

Sorrell founded Apollo’s Fire in 1992.  Since then, she and the ensemble have built one of the largest audiences of any baroque orchestra in North America.  She has led AF in sold-out concerts at London’s BBC Proms and London’s Wigmore Hall, Madrid’s Royal Theatre (Teatro Real), the Grand Théâtre de l’Opéra in Bordeaux, the Aldeburgh Festival (UK), the Tanglewood Festival, Boston’s Early Music Festival, the Aspen Music Festival, the Library of Congress, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), among others.

As a guest conductor, Sorrell has worked with many of the leading American symphony orchestras. In December she will make her Kennedy Center debut conducting the National Symphony in performances of Handel’s Messiah.  Her 2013 debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as conductor and soloist in the complete Brandenburg Concertos was met with standing ovations every night, and hailed as “an especially joyous occasion” (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review).  The same occurred with her recent debut with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, where the Twin Cities Pioneer Press wrote, “Other masters of the [baroque] style have been paying visits, but none has summoned up as much energy, enthusiasm and excitement from the orchestra as Sorrell.”

In 2014, Ms. Sorrell filled in for British conductor Richard Egarr on 5 days’ notice, leading the complete Brandenburg Concertos and playing the harpsichord solo in Brandenburg no. 5, for the closing concert of the Houston Early Music Festival.

Sorrell has attracted national attention and awards for creative programming.  She holds an Artist Diploma from Oberlin Conservatory, and honorary doctorate from Case Western University, two special awards from the National Endowment for the Arts for her work on early American music, and an award from the American Musicological Society, and two different awards from the Cleveland Arts Prize.  Passionate about guiding the next generation of performers, Ms. Sorrell has led many baroque projects for students at Oberlin Conservatory and is a frequent guest coach at the Cleveland Institute of Music.  She is the architect of AF’s highly successful Young Artist Apprentice Program, which has produced the majority of the leading young baroque professionals in the country today.



The orphans for whom Vivaldi wrote his concertos may have been the most music-absorbed young people that history has known. These girls had no identity other than their roles in the elite orchestra. They had no last names, and were known as “Marietta dal Violino,” or “Bernardina dal Violoncello,” etc. Vivaldi often wrote his concertos for a particular girl, indicating her name at the top of the manuscript. Many of the most virtuosic violin concertos were written for “Anna Maria dal Violino.”

It is well known that these orphans received proposals of marriage from wealthy gentlemen. What most people do not realize, though, is that any orphan of the Pietà who chose to marry was required to sign a contract saying that she would never perform as a musician again. This was how the Pietà maintained its standing as a leading tourist attraction of the world. Thus, many of the girls turned down their marriage offers, because they could not face the idea of living without music.

Anna Maria dal Violino received proposals year after year, and was the subject of love poems printed in Venice newspapers. Nevertheless, she apparently could not bring herself to marry in view of the sacrifice she would have to make. She remained at the Pietà her entire life, becoming the principal Maestra of the orchestra.



About Music at Gretna

Gretna Music has filled the Mt. Gretna Playhouse with music since 1976. At the core of our mission is the great stream of Western music that began a millennium ago in Europe and gathered force as musicians from all countries and continents joined the flow through centuries. Among humanity's greatest achievements, that music has become a universal means of communication that can be enhanced by expressive and creative performance. We try to be courageous explorers of our vast musical universe.
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