On Saturday, August 8, ensembles of Houston Symphony musicians present an evening of music via livestream. The centerpiece of the concert is one of the most enduringly popular pieces of classical music ever written: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Each of the piece’s four violin concertos spotlights a different Houston Symphony soloist. The violinists discuss what it’s like to perform Vivaldi’s masterpiece.
What are the challenges of preparing your concerto?
Boson Mo (Spring): My favorite part of Spring is its uninhibited sense of joy and wonder at the reawakening of life. Vivaldi depicts this exceedingly lucid picture of birds chirping, streams burbling, all within an idyllic pastoral landscape, complete with sheep, sheepdogs, and languishing shepherds (of course!). The task of illuminating all of these aspects within the stylistic confines of a Baroque style makes Spring, and indeed all of the Four Seasons, a lot more challenging than what it might seem at first!
Christopher Neal (Summer): The biggest challenge in preparation was that I was out of shape! Musically, that is. I was playing a lot of solo Bach for my virtual hospital visits, but that is a very different music to Vivaldi. As soon as I got the assignment, about 20 days away from performance, I started to do two to three hours of technical exercises and etudes each day. Etudes are small teaching pieces. I also had to adjust my thinking: my usual job is section first violin, where I need to blend in with a group. In Summer, I have to stand out from the orchestra.
Amy Semes (Fall): Fall is a very virtuosic piece, so it poses a lot of technical challenges. You’ll hear many passages that are quite acrobatic. One of my favorite parts about the piece is how descriptive it is in its writing, which presents the challenge of still telling the story of a celebratory fall day throughout all the difficult technical sections!
MuChen Hsieh (Winter): Vivaldi’s Winter is challenging because of the constant and drastic character changes. It goes from depicting severe wind to fearfully tiptoeing on ice. My favorite section is the second movement, where you can hear raindrops represented by pizzicato in the violins and a beautiful melody portraying a peaceful scene by the fire.
Does your season speak to you personally?
Boson Mo (Spring): Yes and no: as a violinist, I grew up listening to all four seasons (as they’re most often performed together all at once), so I’ve come to love and admire all of them! On the other hand, as someone who grew up in Canada where the winters can last seemingly forever, Vivaldi’s portrayal of spring and this irrepressible feeling of optimism truly resonates with how I’ve always felt about the spring.
Christopher Neal (Summer): I grew up in Western New York state, home of some of the fiercest snow blizzards in the lower 48. So summer was my favorite season. It’s a time of safety and freedom—just what we all need right now. There is much to love in this concerto, but probably my favorite part is how Vivaldi, being a very fine violinist himself, knows exactly how to compose in order to show the instrument off.
Amy Semes (Fall): Although I enjoy listening to all four of Vivaldi’s Seasons, Fall would probably be my favorite because of how joyous it is in character. I had never played it before preparing it for this concert so it was exciting for me to work on it!
MuChen Hsieh (Winter): Winter was the first season I learned as a young violinist, and I got to perform it with my youth orchestra. I vividly remember how exciting it was to play this with my childhood friends, and I still occasionally get to perform with some of these friends today. I am really looking forward to playing this with my Houston Symphony colleagues after months of being apart.
What do you hope the audience feels when they hear the piece?
Boson Mo (Spring): One of the most special aspects of The Four Seasons is its incredibly lavish and colorful portrayal of a pastoral Italian life. Every time I listen to the Seasons, I’m instantly transported to this wildly idyllic landscape in all its idealized glory. I really hope that our performance can serve to bring our audience on that same, beautiful journey!
Christopher Neal (Summer): I hope audiences will take a moment to transport themselves from our present situation. In my view, one of our most important jobs as musicians is to offer comfort in bleak times. Vivaldi is a terrible show-off, but it always seems to come from a place of exuberance, of joy. If our performance takes our audience to that place, even for a little while, I’ll consider that success. This music is a good reminder that joy is still around—we just have to search for it.
Amy Semes (Fall): I hope that audiences are transported to the festive spirit of a crisp fall day through the music! I am having a lot of fun playing this piece, so I hope that the audience also enjoys it.
MuChen Hsieh (Winter): I would like to reflect through my playing the sonnets Vivaldi wrote about this season. In the first movement, he included typical descriptions of winter: trembling in the snow, blasting of horrible wind, stamping one’s icy feet, and teeth chattering in the cold. The second movement, Largo, is about spending time by the fire on a dreary day; finally, the third movement (Allegro) starts with “carefully walking on the ice with slow steps,” and leads to “slip and fall to the ground, until the ice cracks and opens.” Vivaldi concludes with a chaotic scene of “winds in battle,” yet also reminds us that “this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.”
Hear more! Watch the livestream performance of music by Mozart, Still, and Vivaldi on Saturday, August 8. Tickets are $10.
Watch MuChen Hsieh, principal second violin, share an excerpt of Winter:
Watch Boson Mo, second violin, share an excerpt of Spring: