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A thrilling concert from the acclaimed ensemble. Plus theater openings for the coming weekend.

If you were privy to any of “period instrument” arguments that broke out in the 1980s, you probably thought the issues were “academic.” For 20 years, the Venice Baroque Orchestra has demonstrated that adherence to baroque performance practices is anything but.

Sure, string instruments built three or four centuries ago sound a bit different, especially when they are played in the style of that era. But Friday night at Brookfield’s Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, the VBO seemed to crack open the familiar strains of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and let it breathe with new life.

The sheer textures of baroque style surely helped. But concertmaster Gianpiero Zanocco (the 15-member group plays without a conductor) brought an improvisatory playfulness to the music.

In the first movement of “Spring” for example, the orchestra articulated the rhythms of the first theme with a clean, head-bobbing pulse. But when it came time for the “bird-song” solo passage, the steady beat dropped away. Zanocco turned to fellow violinist Giacomo Catana and traded Vivaldi’s riffs as if they were jazz musicians at a cutting session.

Zanocco took this approach through most of the piece’s solo passages, treating them like free-wheeling cadenzas, but trusting that the driving pulse of the ensemble was ready for him when he slipped back into the dancing rhythms.

And he can definitely keep your attention as a soloist. Throughout the Vivaldi, and in the several variations of Geminiani’s familiar “La Follia” Concerto Grosso, he demonstrated formidable technique and ear-friendly phrasing.

As did the orchestra as a whole. The precise ensemble and rich sound made it clear why the group is one of the most sought after groups on the international music scene.

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On the horizon:

A busy theater weekend coming up. Here are the major openings:

Jessie Fisher

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s continues to explore contemporary social issues with Grounded, a play about a female fighter pilot who is assigned to pilot drones when she becomes pregnant. Recently staged (with much technical wizardry) in New York City by Lion King wizard Julie Taymor, the Rep’s production stars Jessie Fisher.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre offers another contemporary play—The Few, by Samuel D. Hunter. American Players Theatre regular James Ridge plays an idealistic publisher of a newsletter for long-haul truckers, and Mitch Bultman and Mary MacDonald Kerr are the colleagues that keep things going when he decides to chuck it all and hit the road.

Kay Allmand

In Tandem Theatre performs Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, which tells the story of a photojournalist who was injured by a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq, and the shifting relationships around her while she recuperates at home in Brooklyn. The cast includes Kay Allmand, David Sapiro, Richard Ganoung and Jordan Watson.

On concert stages, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra welcome Edo de Waart back to the podium. This weekend he’ll conduct Gustav Holst’s popular suite, The Planets. Expecting big crowds, the MSO has scheduled three performances.

The Fine Arts Quartet performs music of Mozart and Shostakovich, including a version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 (featuring pianist Alon Goldstein) that it recently recorded to great acclaim.

Hyperlocal

And if you’re feeling adventurous, there is always plenty of innovation and surprise in Hyperlocal’s “improvisational, interdisciplinary” performances. For Hyperlocal #12, Maria Gillespie gathers dancers from around the state, and turns them loose in the Villa Terrace Museum’s art exhibit organized by the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective.

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