By: Lisa Mezzacappa
Daniel Hope admits he was initially skeptical of Max Richter’s plan to “recompose” Antonio Vivaldi’s iconic set of violin concertos, the Four Seasons. But Richter’s compelling motives and vast musical imagination won the violinist over, and Hope eventually premiered and recorded the new work in 2012.
"The Four Seasons is something we all carry around with us," Richter told the Guardian. "It's just everywhere. In a way, we stop being able to hear it. So this project is about reclaiming this music for me personally, by getting inside it and rediscovering it for myself—and taking a new path through a well-known landscape."
Richter’s score resonates with Hope on many levels. First, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons powerfully evokes images of the natural world, and the range of emotions that ebb and flood with the changing seasons. Hope notes that Richter’s career as a composer for film and dance makes him uniquely suited to create music to match this psychological, richly visual sonic terrain. Secondly, Hope believes Richter has struck the perfect balance between reverence for the original, and following his own mischievous spirit in the new score. That mix of humility and hubris makes the music come alive, Hope says, and allows Recomposed to exist in a dynamic conversation with the source of its inspiration.
Richter lovingly de- and re-constructs Vivaldi’s music with compositional techniques drawn from electronic music, club music, minimalist concert music, and the recording studio to reframe Vivaldi’s musical vocabulary. The melody, or the tempo, or the character of a given movement may be very similar to Vivaldi’s original, but Richter has processed, phased, looped, or combined new elements in a way that is unique to his compositional voice. Sometimes he preserves a distinctive element of the original—a melody, perhaps—and modifies its accompaniment so that the melody takes on a different sheen in its new environs. Other times, he calls attention to overlooked aspects of the original—a galloping rhythm, for example—by altering or offsetting it slightly, so that it takes on a new role.
Here are some of the revelatory moments in Richter’s score that thrill and delight Daniel Hope, again and again:
At the beginning of “Autumn 1,” Hope revels in Richter’s “subversive sense of humor”: “he takes the famous theme which everybody knows, and he bends the rhythm” by add adding an extra beat here, removing one there…“tripping up what you know.” As a listener, the effect is subtle—you barely notice what is happening until Richter has sent you skipping down a wormhole.
The breathless movement “Summer 3” is “one of the most raucous and energetic, a tough one for the orchestra,” Hope says, because the musicians need to retrain themselves to play Richter’s new inventions, rather than lapse into their lifelong habits of playing Vivaldi’s familiar phrases. The “recompositions” keep everyone on their toes.
What’s Old is New, is Old
In “Autumn 3,” Richter takes a short phrase of four measures, and puts it in a repeating loop with a series of crisp interlocking rhythms against a slow, melancholy melody. “ ‘Autumn 3’ for me is a masterpiece,” Hope says. “Max creates a minimalist heaven—but the material isn’t by him, it’s by Antonio Vivaldi in 1725. And that’s an amazing ride to be on.”
In “Winter 3,” Richter repeats Vivaldi’s eight-measure solo violin line in a loop, and composes entirely new music to go along with it. For Hope, this is among the work’s most successful moments, a “Vivaldi sample that has gone on a new journey.”
In the slow movement “Winter 2,” Richter has left the violin part completely untouched. “This is Vivaldi’s description of being at home when its raining, it’s cold outside and you’re inside in front of the fire. Max keeps that melody—he doesn’t touch it—but everything else is completely as if it’s on a different star,” Hope says. It’s otherworldly, he says, but “the essence is still there. It’s one of the most moving parts of the piece, of the whole concert—I always look forward to it.”
Hearing, Playing Vivaldi Anew
After performing Recomposed, Hope says his interpretation of the Vivaldi shifts to highlight the differences between the two works. “You want the audience to have two separate pieces…so after the Richter, you become more classical, more baroque when you play the Vivaldi on the same program.” And the orchestra enjoys exploring those nuances of interpretation that make the Richter sound so modern, and the Vivaldi sound so timeless.
Given Richter’s influences in popular and rock music, one might expect his score to inspire the orchestra’s musicians to cathartic abandon—but the opposite is actually true. Hope says that playing the Richter makes the musicians of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra approach the Vivaldi with a “wilder, free-er” spirit. Whereas the Richter score is tightly composed, with no room to deviate from the notated parts, by contrast, improvisation is built into the fabric of the Vivaldi score, and the musicians playing the accompaniment are expected to craft their own musical phrases based on a skeletal guide of the harmony. So they can really cut loose once the Vivaldi is on the music stand—and they do, he says, night after night.
Hear Daniel Hope and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra play both Vivaldi's original Four Season's and Maz Richter's recomposition on November 19, 2019, at the Mondavi Center. Information and tickets.
As a writer, critic, arts administrator and independent musician/composer, Lisa Mezzacappa has been communicating about the arts for nearly 20 years. She has worked as the communications director at New Langton Arts in San Francisco and campus programs manager at Stanford Lively Arts, and currently curates the annual JazzPOP series at the Hammer Museum at UCLA. She is a freelance copywriter, publicist and communications consultant for Cal Performances, Oakland Ballet, InterMusic SF and other organizations, and was recently published in The Strad. She holds a master's degree in ethnomusicology from UC Berkeley.