There is a myth of "absolute music" that was fostered in the Victorian era, a time when poetry aspired to the seemingly abstract and "meaningless" status of music.
In fact, music has often been tied to the pictorial and programmatic. Even so supposed an absolute musician as Beethoven conceived programs for his music -- most famously for the "Pastoral Symphony," but perhaps for such other works as the Fourth Piano Concerto -- and composers such as Tchaikovsky and Schumann were always trying to foist programs for their music off on anyone willing to listen.
There can be no doubt that Antonio Vivaldi had a program in mind for the most famous of his works, the four brilliant concertos for violin and orchestra known as "The Four Seasons."
The composer wrote a prefatory sonnet for each of the concertos and had each line of the sonnets printed again over the precise passage of the music it explained.
Violinist Daniel Heifetz performed the piece with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and its music director, Anne Harrigan, last night in Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College. Not the least of the many wonderful things about the performance was the way in Heifetz brought the programmatic quality of the music to vivid life.
A very small part of that quality may have been the presence on stage of poet Daniel Mark Epstein reading translations -- fine poems that were far superior to the pedestrian originals -- of Vivaldi's poems before each of the Seasons.
But this was largely Heifetz's show. He played with extraordinary virtuosity, imagination and beauty of tone.
Too often this music is made to sound as if it were easy-on-the-ear elevator music. Heifetz was not interested in making the music sound pretty. He eschewed lyricism for drama and was not afraid to attack his instrument fearlessly to achieve it. The support of Harrigan and the orchestra was superb, and principal players such as cellist Gita Roche provided contributions scarcely less impressive than that of the soloist.
The concert was about as fine as any that Harrigan and the BCO have given in their eight seasons.
It began with a fine performance of Jean-Joseph Mouret's Rondo (best known as the theme from "Masterpiece Theatre") by trumpeter Edward Hoffman and concluded with Ravel's "Pavane" and Kodaly's "Dances of Galanta." The Ravel was tastefully played, but the the more difficult and brilliant Kodaly became somewhat undone in the climactic torrent of Gypsy tunes.