Concerts Illumine Baroque Opera the Metropolitan Museum of Art Hosts a Symposium That Includes Provocative Scholarship on Music and Art

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CONDUCTOR Nicholas McGegan, who has made Baroque music his life's work, isn't afraid to be candid about Vivaldi and Corelli.

"In many ways, Vivaldi is a completely shoddy composer," he says during rehearsals for a series of concerts and lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here. "But on the other hand, {his music} nearly always works well with audiences, although sometimes I can't understand why."

Mr. McGegan also disparages Corelli: "He only wrote about five pieces and then rewrote them very slightly over and over again." While it may seem that the maestro shares a common prejudice among the music elite that Vivaldi and Corelli are minor note spinners best heard in elevators, his program, "Love in Arcadia," demonstrates a serious respect for the culture behind the music.

About 40 years ago, an article appeared in Musical Quarterly that examined a relatively obscure reform movement in late 17th-century opera: the Arcadian Academy. Early-music specialist McGegan has taken the name of that movement and applied it not only to a small chamber ensemble he directs, but also to the symposium at the museum, which continues today and tomorrow.

Although the historical Arcadian Academy may be unfamiliar to some music lovers, the general understanding of Baroque music has undergone a sea change since the Musical Quarterly article was published. In a discussion of Baroque opera, the author lamented that the history of 17th- and 18th-century opera was a "vast literary and musical subcontinent, a historical Atlantis, with its bewildering and not perhaps very tempting superfluity of material, {which} has barely been mapped, much less colonized."

It may not yet have been colonized but, through the efforts of conductors like McGegan, the Atlantis of Baroque opera has certainly been well explored.

Numerous performances and recordings make it possible for listeners to understand the various currents and fashions that run through the chaotic, anarchic years separating the Renaissance from the Enlightenment. Whereas diverse artists such as Bach, Racine, and El Greco were lumped together under the "Baroque" heading, events like McGegan's concert series reveal a more subtle world of competing artistic schools, national styles, philosophical polemics, and public reactions.

McGegan has chosen to concentrate on a theme that recurs frequently in all of the arts during this period: the Pastoral. This utopian yearning for a simple world of shepherds tending what one participant in the series calls "the cleanest sheep you've ever seen," was a vital element in the birth of opera in the 17th century.

The Arcadian Academy was founded in 1690 by a group of artists and intellectuals in the court of the flamboyant, expatriate Queen Christina of Sweden. Pastoral themes offered a simple and pleasing alternative to the fantastically byzantine and decadent opera libretti that were in vogue up to that time.

Even though the Arcadian Academy is listed in most histories of opera as a reform movement, McGegan prefers to view it as escapist.

"It was initially a literary movement, and while there were librettists like Zeno {1668-1750} who tried to make opera more moral and get rid of some of the really lascivious comedic elements, by 1708 it was a very different sort of organization," explains McGegan during an interview in the Greenwich Village space where he rehearses.

"The academy included a lot of different people: poets, composers, architects. …