Philharmonia to play Vivaldi’s Biblical beheading

courtesy photoMusic director Nicholas McGegan leads the period orchestra and vocalists in concerts this week.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s Nicholas McGegan, an eminently civilized and mild-mannered alumnus of Cambridge and Oxford universities, admits he has a special affinity for Vivaldi’s stirring 1716 sacred military oratorio.

The conductor, who first heard “Juditha triumphans” (Judith the triumphant), in Verona some 40 years ago, will lead the piece — Vivaldi’s only surviving oratorio — this week at three concerts across the Bay Area.

McGegan still has a vivid memory of his early experience with the work. “It was a semi-staged concert in the Basilica of San Zeno. Starting with ladies in armor pouring out of the crypt, calling for slaughter and vengeance, something that could have been an opera, very militant and heroic,” he says. “It struck me as wild and wacky, not at all your typical soothing Vivaldi — and it made a big impression on me.”

As trumpets blare and drums roll, the opening chorus, “Arma, caedes, vindictae, furores,” explodes in a call for weapons and furies, paving the way for the Biblical heroine, Judith, to behead Holofernes, an Assyrian conqueror, and save her people.

The music’s theme wasn’t random. “This is a piece against the Turks, Venice’s enemy. A patriotic call to arms,” says McGegan. Vivaldi, a Venetian, wrote the oratorio to celebrate a victory by his powerful city-state over the Ottoman Empire in the siege of Corfu.

Still, as always in the case of Vivaldi, the music has tremendous variety. “Judith’s aria near the end is the exact opposite of the opening chorus, with the antique soft sound of English viols,” MeGegan says.

The Philharmonia Baroque concerts are cast spectacularly: Dutch mezzo Cécile van de Sant sings Judith, Diana Moore is Holofernes, Vivica Genaux is the squire Vagaus and Dominique Labelle is Judith’s handmaid, Abra.

The orchestra employs a variety of Baroque instruments, some exotic by today’s standards. They include: viola d’amore, baroque oboes, chalumeaux (single-reed instruments that were forerunners of the clarinet) and theorbos (long-necked lutes with many strings).

“Each timbre holds a specific place in representing a mood, hinting at an outcome, or suggesting the cultural distance between the Turks and the Venetians,” writes Stanford University music professor Eleanor Selfridge-Field.artsClassical Music & OperaJuditha triumphans (Judith the triumphant)Philharmonia BaroqueVivaldi

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