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