Words and music

Jupiter Ensemble gives voice to Vivaldi at CU concert

Jupiter Ensemble makes its Front Range debut on March 22 as part of the CU Presents Artist Series. Photo by Julien Benhamou.

Antonio Vivaldi is the most familiar and unfamiliar of major composers. Classical music enthusiasts may know just a handful of his more than 500 concertos, including the ubiquitous Four Seasons, but the Italian baroque composer is one of the easiest to identify through his stylistic formula. An all-Vivaldi program can therefore become monotonous even if most of the program is unknown.

For Thomas Dunford, lute virtuoso and founder of the Jupiter Ensemble, a sampling of the composer’s much-neglected vocal output is one way to change things up. The ensemble started out with Vivaldi upon its 2018 debut, and an all-Vivaldi program will be featured throughout its current North American tour, including the group’s Front Range debut at Macky Auditorium on March 22 as part of the CU Presents Artist Series.

“I love when programs tell different things,” Dunford says. “I always like to learn from composers.” With Vivaldi, the vocal excerpts give the audience some breathing space that an unbroken parade of concertos — even with a variety of featured instruments — cannot. “It’s like a tasting. If you balance duck liver with ice cream, you won’t get overloaded.”

Jupiter’s vocalist is French-Italian mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre, a fixture with the group from its outset. “Lea was our voice at the beginning, and I try to do as many programs with her as I can,” Dunford says. “We try to keep the same team together as much as we can, so that the group can gel together and get all the right reflexes.”

Desandre sings four arias from Vivaldi operas: two from his only surviving oratorio Juditha triumphans, and one from the sacred vocal composition Nisi Dominus. These are interspersed as slow-fast pairs between three concertos, two for Dunford’s lute and one for Jupiter’s cellist Bruno Philippe.

Jupiter Ensemble founder Thomas Dunford. Credit: Julien Benhamou

‘The Eric Clapton of the lute’

Dunford was raised in France, the son of two leading performers on the baroque viola da gamba. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire and became, according to BBC Music Magazine, the “Eric Clapton of the lute.” The instrument is often part of the baroque “basso continuo” group, which provides the bass line and fundamental harmonies below the melodic lines.

It was while playing in such continuo groups that Dunford conceived the project that became Jupiter. “After a while, I had the desire to explore some of the repertoire in a way I believed would sound closer to the spirit of what composers were doing at the time, considering how modern and expressive this music would have been to contemporary audiences,” he says.

The idea was to get the best people together in a musical environment where each performer knows the material so well that every moment of a performance seems like improvisation. “I wanted a group of friends that could work deeply on the music for a powerful result,” he says.

Jupiter is one player per part, but Dunford is more concerned about musical expression than numbers. Besides Dunford and Desandre, the group performing at Macky includes two violinists, one violist, one cellist, one double bassist, and a keyboardist on harpsichord and organ.

When it comes to the lute, Vivaldi wrote four solo works featuring the instrument. Dunford plays the most familiar, the D-major concerto, along with a C-major work that is more a “trio sonata” than a concerto proper. With Jupiter’s small numbers, the adaptation as a concerto was uncomplicated, Dunford said. 

“Vivaldi was writing for a small lute, probably tuned an octave higher than what I play,” he says. When the ensemble plays together in the so-called “tutti” passages, the lute largely plays along with either the violin lines or the “basso continuo” part, but then breaks on its own for the solo passages.

But ultimately, whether listeners feel unfamiliar or too familiar with the red-headed Italian at the center of the music, Dunford hopes Jupiter Ensemble’s upcoming CU Boulder performance is an opportunity for concertgoers to connect through a common language.

“No matter how large or small the audience, it’s all about shared emotions and experience.” 

ON THE BILL: Jupiter Ensemble with Lea Desandre. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 22, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., CU Boulder. Tickets here.