Like his contemporaries in Germany, France and England, Antonio Vivaldi was a prolific composer. At his death in 1741 at the age of 63, he left behind a huge volume of works encompassing every medium of the day concertos, trio sonatas, motets, oratorios and opera.
In his lifetime Vivaldi was famous as an opera composer, and his stage works were only matched by those of Handel for their dramatic power and emotional depth. Yet today, Vivaldi's vocal and choral music is largely forgotten, except, that is, for the "Gloria," which is dusted off every Christmas and performed by choral groups around the country.
Other than that, Vivaldi's reputation as one of the major figures in baroque music rests almost solely on his concertos. And that's a perception that Gerald Elias would like to alter.
"He and Mozart are the most versatile composers there are," Elias told the Deseret Morning News. "And the amount of operas, oratorios and motets Vivaldi wrote is unbelievable. If someone today were to write it all out, it would take a lifetime."
As the music director of the Vivaldi by Candlelight concerts for the past four years, Elias has gotten to know the Italian composer's music intimately. In the past, he's focused on Vivaldi's orchestral works for the Candlelight concerts. This year, he's going in a slightly different direction. "We have a wonderful diva in Davis County, and having her join us this year would give us a great opportunity of exploring Vivaldi's vocal music."
The diva in question is soprano Celena Shafer, who lives in Davis County but whose operatic and concert career has taken her to many of the major music venues in the United States and Europe since graduating from the University of Utah.
"Having Celena as our guest artist is just spectacular," Elias said. But he admitted that it was a bit of a tough sell to the board members of the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, for which the Vivaldi by Candlelight concerts is a major fund-raising event. "Like many people, they weren't aware that Vivaldi had written so much music for voice."
Elias finally convinced the board of the soundness of his proposed program once he listed just some of Vivaldi's countless operas and other vocal works.
Elias and Shafer worked together on the program for months, he said. "I told her I wanted her to sing whatever she wanted, but I would love to have her do some baroque pieces."
For the concert, Shafer will sing three arias from three very different works by Vivaldi "Io son quel gelsomino," from the opera "Arsilda, Regina di Ponte"; "Dominus Deus" from Gloria, RV 589; and the recitative and aria "Armatae face" from the oratorio "Juditha Triumphans."
In addition, Shafer will also sing arias by Claudio Monteverdi, Francesco Conti, Giovanni Legrenzi and Antonio Lotti. "Celena found these arias, but they were just with keyboard accompaniment," Elias said, adding that they don't exist in orchestral versions. "Either that, or they are nearly impossible to come by." So he orchestrated them for strings and continuo.
Rounding out the concert, which takes place Saturday at 8 p.m. in the First Presbyterian Church, are three sinfonias by Vivaldi and four canzonas for brass by Giovanni Gabrieli. "Our theme is Venetian composers who were writing between 1600 and about 1720 or 1730," Elias said.
Including pieces for brass will give the concert a more festive air, he said. "I wanted to do something on the extravagant side, since this is the 25th anniversary of the Vivaldi by Candlelight concerts."
Elias is the series' third music director, having taken over from Barbara Scowcroft, who directed the event from 1997-2004. She, in turn, replaced Ricklen Nobis, who was the series' first music director.
Vivaldi by Candlelight is the brainchild of Mary Kay Lazarus, who was a board member of the International Visitors Utah Council, as the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy was known back in the 1980s. She was asked by Terrell Dougan to come up with a fund-raising plan to save the council from bankruptcy. "I thought immediately of re-creating a memorable concert I had attended in the 13th-century Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, where a chamber orchestra played Vivaldi by candlelight," Lazarus stated in an e-mail to the Deseret Morning News.
"She talked to me about it, and we decided it was doable,' Nobis said by phone from Chicago, where he is playing in a production of "The Phantom of the Opera."
"At the time I was in the Salt Lake Chamber Ensemble, which I decided I would use as the core group for the concert." Besides Nobis, the ensemble consisted of Erich Graf, John Thompson and Pat Zwick.
Nobis invited Andres Cardenes, who was the Utah Symphony's concertmaster at the time, and the Pro Musica of Utah to join him and the Salt Lake Chamber Ensemble for the inaugural concert. "It was a charming, charming concert," Nobis said.
Lazarus had invited Maurice Abravanel, and he came and sat in the front pew of the Cathedral Church of St. Marks, where the concert was held, together with then Utah Symphony president Wendell Ashton. "It was kind of intimidating having him there so close," Nobis said, "but his presence added to the success of the event and helped it in its growth."
The turnout was overwhelming and the concert was, in fact, more successful than either Nobis or Lazarus had imagined. "The pews were absolutely filled," Lazarus wrote in her e-mail.
"Afterwards, (the council) asked if we would repeat the event," Nobis said. "They gave us a little bigger budget the following year, so I was able to add some new musicians." And what originally was to be a one-time event turned out to be a 14-year gig for him.
In its early years, the concerts were also broadcast live on KUER-FM. "We installed Gene Pack in the balcony, and he did a running commentary between the pieces in that hushed voice you hear announcers use at televised bowling games," Nobis said. Under Nobis' direction, the concerts focused just on the music of Vivaldi. That changed when Scowcroft became music director. "We did mostly Vivaldi," Scowcroft said by phone from her home, "but I said, 'Let's feature other composers, too."'
She wasn't sure how her decision would be taken, but it was met with acceptance by the council board and by audiences. "I didn't want to change something just for the sake of changing it," she said. "I wanted to respect what Rick had done, but I thought by doing the music of other baroque composers it would put Vivaldi's music in a better perspective."
That has also been Elias' thrust as director. "Vivaldi was a genius," he said, "and I think it's important to see where he came from musically and see where he inspired other composers."
But no matter what form the program takes and regardless of the fact that real candles have now been substituted by electrical ones in order to be fire code compliant, the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy has been helped tremendously by the contributions the concert brings in each year. "The concert supports about 15 percent of our operating expenses," said Laura Dupuy, executive director of the council.
The council's mission is to promote respect and understanding between the people of Utah and people from around the world, Dupuy said. "We're non-partisan, and we're a private-sector partner with the Department of State."
From her perspective, Dupuy is thrilled to have the Vivaldi by Candlelight concerts as the council's fund-raiser. "It's remarkable to have such a signature event," she said, adding that there is no better way to promote fellowship and to cultivate the hope for peace throughout the world than through music.
Dupuy said there have been patrons who have attended every concert for the past quarter century, and Elias hopes they'll return this year, too. "This is a big event, and because it's an anniversary year, we wanted to make it a really special event in the musical calendar," he said.And with the program he selected, Elias feels confident there will be a huge turnout this year. "The music for the whole program is really powerful. A lot of people have the perception that baroque music is tidy and polite. But what we have here is no-holds-barred music. The arias are full of passion and revenge, and the entire program is a powerhouse of music."
If you go ...
What: Vivaldi by Candlelight
Where: First Presbyterian Church, 12 C St., Salt Lake City
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
How much: $50 (includes post-concert reception)
Phone: 832-3270Web: utahdiplomacy.org