Europa Galante, the first-rate early music ensemble from Italy, offered a never-dry history lesson Sunday evening for the Shriver Hall Concert Series.
The subject was the Pietà orphanage for girls in Venice, famed for its musically talented wards and the works composed for them. Although Vivaldi is the name most readily associated with the institution -- he held posts there off and on for years -- several other composers contributed to the Pietà's legacy.
Violinist and Europa Galante founder Fabio Biondi drew from all of this to fashion a fascinating assortment of Italian string repertoire from the middle of the 18th century under the heading "Il diario di Chiara" ("Chiara's Diary"). Chiara, an orphan at Pietà who became a much-admired violinist, she inspired and performed music on this program.
It was especially rewarding on Sunday to hear a couple of her own cadenzas for pieces by Antonio Martinelli and Fulgensio Perotti; they suggest a musician of taste, cleverness and modesty.
Biondi and his colleagues -- all of them standing throughout (except for harpsichordist/organist Paola Poncet) -- demonstrated consistent technical polish and phrased with abundant color. They paid particular attention to dynamic contrasts; pianissimo playing in slow movements, notably those of Martinelli's D major Viola d'Amore Concerto, proved exquisite.
And while there were certain surface similarities in the compositions, subtle stylistic differences clearly emerged as well. The musicians deftly spotlighted all the distinctive nuances -- from the downright noble depth of the Andante in a D major Concerto by Vivaldi (the crescendo had terrific power) to the wildly dancing finale of a Sinfonia by Giovanni Porta and the surprise turns that cap a Sinfonia by Nicola Porpora.