Italian Period Instrument Group in Dazzling L.A. Debut

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When considering the buzz that Il Giardino Armonico has been kicking up in early music circles, it is worth remembering that this is an easily agitated field. For all the well-spent energies and extravagant body language onstage in its local debut Thursday at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall, the Milanese ensemble did not suggest the second coming of Elvis.

What it did suggest is that the period-instrument movement can liberate itself from endemic fussiness not by rejecting antiquarian niceties but through technical accomplishment and sheer expressive elan.

Take ornamentation. For many such bands, this is a matter of sacred duty, to be approached reverently, as codified ritual. For the eight men of Il Giardino Armonico, it is an intensifier of passion rather than an inhibitor, to be applied as intuitive improvisation.

Similarly, the root of the ensemble's interpretive approach is an in-your-face exaggeration of dynamic and textural contrasts, but done with such flair as to seem natural rather than mannered.

The results are highly volatile. Most of the time, the band made familiar music fresh and joyful, with dazzling virtuosity. But at the extremes, Il Giardino Armonico can lapse into obsessive inwardness, as in noodling spirals in the first movement of Bach's Fifth "Brandenburg" Concerto, or it can burst into explosive fits such as the percussive orgy at the climax of Vivaldi's variations on "La Follia," free of all but a hint of rasping pitch.

No stranger to the "greatest hits" concept, the group led with its lone novelty, a suite from Matthew Locke's music for a 1674 production of "The Tempest." Endearingly weird stuff, it brought the ensemble immediately into an integrated flow of fancy and nuance.

After that it was Bach and Vivaldi and bravura solo turns. Giovanni Antonini with a sopranino recorder may look like Martin Short doing an over-the-top impression, but he plays like an incarnate muse, working revivifying miracles on Vivaldi's Concerto in C, RV 444. Lutenist Luca Pianca had trouble balancing his teammates' contributions in Vivaldi's RV 93 Concerto in D, but when left exposed, he spun haunted magic in the Largo.

The first movement aside, the Fifth "Brandenburg" made an entrancing teaser for the group's new recording of the set, with a more restrained Antonini on transverse flute, the charismatic dancing play of violinist Enrico Onofri, and the incisive foundation and carefully shaped solos of harpsichordist Michele Barchi.

Encore time found Antonini again in a state of lyric grace with a Vivaldi slow movement, while the string players swaggered through a piece by Tarquinio Merulo.

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