The tree-lined Mall in Central Park was meant for music. Since the Mall’s first bandstand opened in 1862, millions of visitors have spent summer evenings under the elms enjoying a free concert series supported, since 1905, by the philanthropist Elkan Naumburg, and continued by his descendants and numerous other benefactors.
This week, in the neoclassical Naumburg Bandshell, built in 1923, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s rounded off the series’s 113th season of the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts with a perennial favorite: Vivaldi. The New York–based orchestra played Four Seasons and two other familiar pieces in a performance that harmonized with the summer sounds of Central Park.
The opening selection, the bright and colorful Concerto for Strings in C Major (RV 117), served well as a prelude while the chatty, t-shirted, and linen-suited audience settled in to a few hundred seats and many more blankets and benches surrounding the Bandshell. The OSL swung the rhythm a bit to introduce the audience to the vivacious music of “the Red Priest” (so called for his hair and for his clerical vocation).
Sherezade Panthaki’s trills alighted gracefully on the branches of the accompaniment; they were the most birdlike sounds I heard all evening.
Vivaldi wrote his sacred music with the same verve as his secular works. His In Furore Iustissimae Irae (RV 626) is a motet known for its bold, direct invocation of Christ in the second movement. Typical of Vivaldi’s Baroque sensibilities, it is both technically tricky and emotionally demanding, and it requires a lively soprano to carry off. Sherezade Panthaki was that, and more: her warm, supple voice, in the balmy breeze of falling dusk, was the highlight of the performance. Panthaki specializes in early and Baroque music, so Scarlatti, Bach, and Handel give her plenty of opportunities for trills. But hers alighted gracefully on the branches of the accompaniment; they were the most birdlike sounds I heard all evening. From the first melisma in the opening movement, which includes multiple unison trills and turns, her voice was one with the strings. And her “Jesu dulcissime” was precisely that: dear and sweet.
After intermission (fireflies provided the entertainment), Krista Bennion Feeney, a violinist and the concertmaster of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, took the stage as the second soloist to remind the audience why the world remembers Vivaldi.
Four Seasons is an early example of “program music”: Vivaldi wrote the concerto cycle to accompany a quartet of sonnets, which the WQXR classical radio host Terrance McKnight read in translation before each concerto as Feeney played the corresponding motifs. A charming idea, certainly, and an informative one, but one that fell disappointingly flat. What had been a smooth selection of Vivaldi became “Music 101 on the Mall,” as McKnight’s clunky and overly plain-spoken reading interrupted the flow of a concerto cycle that is all about the perpetual movement of seasons. Radio listeners would have missed out on the poems, admittedly, but the Seasons would have turned more smoothly if the poems were simply printed in the program notes.
Regardless, Feeney presided over Four Seasons admirably, transforming the hazards of an outdoor, live-broadcast concert into its charms. In the first movement of “Spring,” the audience tittered as a songbird imitated the very birdlike motif that Feeney had just demonstrated with McKnight. At the end of the Allegro, Feeney gently directed McKnight back to his seat after he attempted to introduce “Summer” between movements. She thanked audiences for their well-meaning applause in the middle of multiple concertos. She laughed mid–bow stroke when a dog barked at a storm motif in “Winter.”
It is no surprise that Feeney got the birds going: her technique is nimble and avian, at home in the high notes and tempos of Vivaldi’s “Spring.” But it was in the mercurial “Summer” that she and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s were at their best. Feeney’s orchestra would, and did, follow her anywhere, as they transitioned between movements as swiftly as the changing wind before a cloudburst. Four Seasons is a work that thrives on this deftness and cohesion: birds call to one another, storms brew and break, summer gives way to fall, and then to winter. Time flies.
And in Central Park, too; the Bandshell glowed with a midsummer sunset, and by “Winter” it was full night in the city, and the Naumburg Concerts had finished another season with their admirable, if not transcendent, revival of Vivaldi.