Nav­i­gat­ing the clas­si­cal wa­ters Venice Baroque Orches­tra with Anna Fusek


When the Venice Baroque Orches­tra comes call­ing at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter this Tues­day, Oct. 30, it will de­vote most of its pro­gram to one of its city’s most fa­mous musical sons, An­to­nio Vi­valdi. He was born there in 1678, not quite a half-mile from the San Marco Basil­ica, where his fa­ther worked as a vi­o­lin­ist — the in­stru­ment on which An­to­nio, too, would gain renown. He died 63 years later in Vi­enna, hav­ing trav­eled north, hop­ing in vain to jump-start a ca­reer as a per­former and com­poser that had peaked in Italy some while ear­lier.

Al­though Vi­valdi wrote about 50 op­eras and some 70 sub­stan­tial sa­cred pieces, he is most re­mem­bered for his con­cer­tos, which he pro­duced by the truck­load — more than 500 of them, for prac­ti­cally ev­ery in­stru­ment in use at that time, fea­tured singly or in groups. There was a prac­ti­cal rea­son. He taught for many years at Venice’s Ospedale della Pi­età, a foundling hospi­tal where the boys were pre­pared to be trades­men and many of the girls were trained as mu­si­cians. Con­certs at the Pi­età be­came an es­sen­tial stop for mu­si­cally in­clined tourists. The English­man Ed­ward Wright wrote of his visit to Venice in the early 1720s:

Ev­ery Sun­day and hol­i­day there is a per­for­mance of mu­sic in the chapels of these hos­pi­tals, vo­cal and in­stru­men­tal, per­formed by the young women of the place, who are set in a gallery above and ... hid from any dis­tinct view from those be­low by a lat­tice of iron­work. The or­gan parts, as well as those of the other in­stru­ments, are all per­formed by the young women . ... Their per­for­mance is sur­pris­ingly good. … And this is all the more amus­ing since their per­sons are con­cealed from view.

“They play the vi­o­lin, the recorder, the or­gan, the oboe, the cello, the bas­soon,” re­ported the French trav­eler Charles de Brosses in 1740. “In short, there is no in­stru­ment large enough to frighten them.” The di­ver­sity of Vi­valdi’s con­certo out­put will be lightly sug­gested by the dif­fer­ent forces spot­lighted in the five con­cer­tos on the Venice Baroque Orches­tra’s

pro­gram: a con­certo for vi­o­lin, fea­tur­ing Gian­piero Zanocco; one for two cel­los, with Mas­simo Rac­canelli and Fed­erico Tof­fano; one for recorder, with Anna Fusek; and dou­ble con­cer­tos for vi­o­lin and cello and for recorder and vi­o­lin. (Or­ches­tral sin­fo­nias by Vi­valdi, plus Francesco Gem­ini­ani’s re­cast­ing of a set of vari­a­tions by Ar­can­gelo Corelli, com­plete the playlist.) All the mu­si­cians are highly re­garded in the early-mu­sic cir­cuit, but we were es­pe­cially in­ter­ested to have a con­ver­sa­tion with Fusek, who has emerged as one of the world’s lead­ing recorder play­ers.

There is not much to a recorder. The in­stru­ment con­sists of a pipe in which are drilled a series of holes. At the top end is a mouth­piece into which is con­structed a sharp wooden edge; it splits the stream of air the player blows into the in­stru­ment, and that in turn sets into vi­bra­tion the col­umn of air in the pipe ex­tend­ing be­low it. Dif­fer­ent pitches arise from the player’s al­ter­ing the length of that vi­brat­ing col­umn of air by cover­ing or leav­ing open the fin­ger holes in dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions. As a fam­ily, recorders are built in var­i­ous sizes. Smaller sizes have a high-pitched com­pass, and large ones have lower tones. At their most ba­sic, the in­stru­ments are sim­ple enough for rel­a­tively in­ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers to make mu­sic on them. That is not the level on which Fusek op­er­ates. In her hands, recorders are so­phis­ti­cated musical in­stru­ments sus­cep­ti­ble to as­ton­ish­ing vir­tu­os­ity.

She be­gan playing the recorder as a six-year-old in her na­tive Prague. She had be­gun vi­o­lin lessons the year be­fore and would start pi­ano lessons when she was eight. She sus­pects that her child­hood de­light in mu­sic was partly due to her fam­ily be­ing un­mu­si­cal. “If you come from a musical fam­ily,” she said in a laugh­ter-laced Skype in­ter­view from her home in Ber­lin, “you have to fo­cus on it and be­come per­fect on one in­stru­ment. My ad­van­tage was that I re­ally did it only for fun. My par­ents never told me I had to sit for four hours and practice.” She ended up pro­gress­ing to se­ri­ous musical train­ing in Rot­ter­dam, in Ber­lin, and at the Schola Can­to­rum Basilien­sis in Switzer­land, a hot­bed of his­tor­i­cally in­formed per­for­mance.

Her ed­u­ca­tion also ex­tends to an ex­pe­ri­ence one would not find on most mu­si­cians’ ré­sumés: a sum­mer of study at the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Dra­matic Arts in New York City. She en­rolled, she said, partly be­cause she “al­ways wanted to be more than a tourist in New York, and I have al­ways liked act­ing.” This did lead to some movie au­di­tions and even ten­ta­tive film projects, but not much more than that, leav­ing her to fo­cus on her ca­reer as a recorder player … and as a vi­o­lin­ist and a pi­anist, since she never re­lin­quished those in­stru­ments and con­tin­ued to study them dur­ing her con­ser­va­tory years. She is, there­fore, a rar­ity among pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians: a triple threat who can play with ex­pert pro­fi­ciency on a wind in­stru­ment, a string in­stru­ment, and a key­board in­stru­ment. “I hope that it makes me a bet­ter mu­si­cian,” she said. “It re­ally helps me when I work with or­ches­tras. I can say some­thing to the wind in­stru­ments, and I can also say some­thing to the strings, and I can also say some­thing to the con­tinuo, be­cause I sort of know a bit about all these things.

“Of course, I don’t have as big a reper­toire as a ‘real pi­anist’ has, like some­body who plays all the pi­ano con­cer­tos,” she protested. None­the­less, no­body stum­bling across the YouTube post doc­u­ment­ing her record­ing ses­sion of a Mozart vi­o­lin-and-fortepi­ano sonata with her vi­o­lin­ist-col­league Zanocco would imag­ine that she was not a “real pi­anist.” From there, one could move on to a YouTube video of a 2017 con­cert with the Orches­tra della Toscana, in which she soloed on all three in­stru­ments. In fact, the ros­ter for the Venice Baroque Orches­tra’s Santa Fe per­for­mance in­cludes her name as a mem­ber of its first vi­o­lin sec­tion.

She has now per­formed a good deal with that much-recorded orches­tra, which she now con­sid­ers musical fam­ily. “What I love about the Venice Baroque Orches­tra, and the Ital­ian ap­proach in gen­eral, is it’s very fluid, flex­i­ble, and light — sparkling, like very fresh prosecco,” she said. She notes that the en­sem­ble per­forms a rel­a­tively wide reper­toire that ranges from Mon­teverdi to Mozart. “But if they are tour­ing abroad,” she adds, “of course peo­ple like to lis­ten to their core reper­toire.” The same is true of her recorder-playing. She likes per­form­ing some con­tem­po­rary works — for ex­am­ple, Maki Ishii’s Black

In­ten­tion, a mod­ern recorder clas­sic from 1975, which she played on a broad­cast for Czech tele­vi­sion three years ago. But op­por­tu­ni­ties for recorder recitals on main­stream con­cert series are few, and she has not had the op­por­tu­nity to pro­gram it since.

So Vi­valdi it shall be in Santa Fe — and even there she is bend­ing things a bit. The solo con­certo she will per­form, sub­ti­tled Il gardellino (The Goldfinch), was in fact writ­ten for the trans­verse flute. She plays it in­stead on a so­pranino recorder, which sounds an oc­tave higher than a flute — but that would seem ap­pro­pri­ate since the point of the piece is to im­i­tate a bird. The other, a dou­ble con­certo, was cast by Vi­valdi for two oboes. “I played it as a vi­o­lin­ist with two cool oboists,” Fusek said, “and it was such a fun piece that I ar­ranged it for so­prano recorder and vi­o­lin. For a recorder player, Vi­valdi’s is the most vir­tu­osic mu­sic of its time. He uses this arpeggio style, which is more nat­u­ral on the string in­stru­ments, and also in key­board mu­sic. On wind in­stru­ments, this is quite hard, be­cause you have all these jumps. The recorder and the wind in­stru­ments are more on the singing side. You have to play some­what the way singers sing, mak­ing a lot of changes to your em­bouchure” — the mouth po­si­tion and mus­cu­la­ture that di­rect the breath and in­flu­ence the re­sul­tant tone. “With Vi­valdi, that is the main tricky thing. I search for the light­est way to play this mu­sic. It’s al­ways a chal­lenge.

“If you come from a musical fam­ily, you have to fo­cus on it and be­come per­fect on one in­stru­ment. My ad­van­tage was that I re­ally did it only for fun. My par­ents never told me I had to sit for four hours and practice.” — recorder player Anna Fusek

Anna Fusek

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