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Kick off the holidays with the Santa Rosa Symphony and Vivaldi's Gloria

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, November 29, 2018

When the Santa Rosa Symphony was searching for an Italian choral piece for this weekend’s “Viva Italia” program, they picked the brain of Jenny Bent, choral director of the symphony and director of choral activities at Sonoma State University.
 
Bent suggested Vivaldi’s Gloria in D major, a hybrid work that is part concerto, part opera . The Latin text dates back to the fourth century and is part of the Ordinary of the Mass, so it is often performed at the holidays.
 
“They wanted a piece 25 minutes in length that had minimal soloists,” she said. “For this time of the year, it seemed like a good fit.”
 
The work, which will feature two sopranos and a countertenor as soloists, is one of Vivaldi’s best known sacred works, a joyful hymn divided into 12 brief movements. While providing striking contrasts, from deep sadness to sunny brilliance, the movements also exhibit a cohesive structure, with the signature octave leaps of the first movement returning in the penultimate movement.
 
“The opening movement is probably one of the most familiar ... a lot of people recognize it, and it has an overall jubilant, joyful feel,” said Bent, who has been preparing the chorus since August. “The second movement has a little more of a mournful sound. It’s in the minor key.”
Although Vivaldi is believed to have composed the work around 1716, it was consigned to oblivion for two centuries after his death. In the 1920s, the Gloria in D Major was rediscovered in a pile of discarded Vivaldi manuscripts. It was finally performed in its original version in 1957.
Guest conducting the work this Saturday through Monday will be Jayce Ogren, a rising star in both the symphonic and operatic worlds. For the rest of the program, the symphony will a perform Rossini’s Overture to “Guillaume Tell” and Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy,” featuring viola soloist Nokuthula Ngwenyama.
 
“Jayce wanted this to be more of an intimate experience for the performers, so it’s a smaller choir than what we’ve had in the past,” Bent said of the chorus, made up of 65 singers from SSU and 25 singers from the Santa Rosa Junior College Chamber Singers. “And it will be a smaller orchestra than we used in the past.”
 
Due to the smaller ensemble, chorus will stand onstage, directly behind the orchestra, rather than in the choral loft behind the stage.
 
Vivaldi originally wrote the work for the choir of the Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage for girls who were the illegitimate daughters of Venetian noblemen and their mistresses. Vivaldi spent most of his career there as priest, music teacher and virtuoso violinist.
Back in Vivaldi’s time, the girls sang from the upper galleries of the church and were hidden from view, to protect them from corrupted noblemen and visitors to the city.
 
As for Stravinsky’s alleged criticism of Vivaldi — “Vivaldi did not write 400 concerts; he wrote one concerto 400 times” — Bent begs to differ.
 
“‘The Seasons’ is an early example of program music that is more associated with Romantic composers like Berlioz,” she said. “I consider him ahead of his time ... He was also operating within a time when you don’t have as broad a palate of chord progressions. It’s harmonically limited.”
Although she has sung Vivaldi’s Gloria before, this is Bent’s first time conducting the work. With Ogren’s help, she said the performance will follow the modern-day Baroque style while using modern pitch and instruments.
 
“It’s not too heavy with the tone and has specific articulations that are typical, such as a line that will swell into a dissonance and then release when it dissolves,” she said. “A hallmark of Baroque music is that it is very decorative and ornate, which is what baroque means, so you see a tapestry of various textures.”’
 
Bent is particularly excited about the three soloists, who all have strong connections to SSU: sopranos Esther Rayo and Jennifer Thuman were freshman in 2006, when Bent first started teaching there.
 
“They are starting out their careers now, and it’s fun to see that come full circle,” she said of the singers, who are also best friends. “Just to see them perform professionally is very exciting.”
 
The third soloist, countertenor Chris Fritzsche, lives in Santa Rosa and is a graduate and former vocal teacher at SSU. He has sung in the a cappella ensemble Chanticleer and is a founding member of the vocal ensemble, Clerestory.
 
“He is fabulously talented,” she said. “He’s a fixture in the Bay Area.”
 
The Santa Rosa Symphony, led by Guest Conductor Jayce Ogrenwill , will perform “Viva Italia” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1; 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2; and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 3, at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall at Sonoma State University. Tickets are $24-$87. To reserve: 707-546-8742; srsymphony.org; or at the patron services office at 50 Santa Rosa Ave..
 
Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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