By Rob Hubbard, read the story on startribune.com
September 26, 2023
If you ever find yourself experiencing a work of art and trying to figure out what the artist is trying to tell you, rest assured that 18th-century Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi is there for you.
When he wrote his collection of four violin concertos called “The Four Seasons,” he published with them four sonnets that describe the natural phenomena that each movement of the masterwork is intended to evoke.
But could climate change render each season’s clearly delineated elements a thing of the past? Render those descriptive sounds a source of rueful nostalgia? Or divide them into different seasonal categories, as aspects of steamy summer become the province of fall, snowy winters more like rainy springs?
To inspire such reflection — and sound a call to action — “The [uncertain] Four Seasons” was created. The idea was this: What would those evocations of nature in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” sound like come 2050 if the world takes no major steps to cut back on the greenhouse gas emissions that are the chief source of climate change?
In 2021, 14 orchestras around the world performed versions of “The Four Seasons” for which an algorithm shaped the music according to projected local conditions. Last year, the U.S. premiere was presented by Maine’s Classical Uprising. And now that group’s leader, Emily Isaacson, will conduct a made-for-Minnesota edition at St. Catherine University’s O’Shaughnessy Auditorium on Saturday night, leading the Minnesota Opera Orchestra and violin soloist Jesse Irons.
Isaacson’s arrangement alters Vivaldi’s music according to climate data from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest reports, but also has a fair amount of Vivaldi’s original for comparison purposes. So where birds chirp in Vivaldi, there may be silence in the 2050 take because of species decline and migration. And those summertime storms may not pass as quickly as they once did.
“One of the reasons that I made the arrangement is that some of the changes require familiarity with the original,” Isaacson said from her home in Portland, Maine. “But even if you’re not a music nerd, you’ve heard Vivaldi’s music while waiting at the dentist’s office or on hold for something. It’s like it’s in the vernacular of our culture in a way that not all music is.”
But the message of “The [uncertain] Four Seasons” comes from how the original is altered. And artificial intelligence is responsible for those changes.
“The algorithm uses geospatial climate modeling that gives each city or place percentile rankings based on how climate change will impact each place,” Isaacson said. “Rainfall, water levels, air temperature, water temperature, species decline, etc. And that percentile ranking changes the music. For example, surface temperature data alters the tempo.”
Soloist Irons ran into some issues with what artificial intelligence has done to Vivaldi.
“The algorithm did not take into account the number of fingers on my left hand,” he said. “Sliding back and forth between Vivaldi and the projected future is the most challenging aspect of the performance but also the most satisfying. The juxtaposition of familiar and foreign, of depressing and inspiring, reflects the choice faced by all of us, and at the same time makes for a wonderful musical arc.”
And Vivaldi isn’t the only one contributing poetry. Three St. Catherine’s students — Sofia Vanderlan, Naomi Stewart and Ivana Makor — have written original works that correspond with the altered score and emphasize the changes that climate change could bring without a concerted effort to slow it.
“This is a project that ultimately is about understanding and healing,” Isaacson said. “And, with the poetry, there are these moments of connection to individual and community experiences in Minnesota.”
Classical Uprising’s “The [uncertain] Four Seasons”
When: 7:30 p.m. Sat.
Where: O’Shaughnessy Auditorium, St. Catherine University, 2004 Randolph Av., St. Paul.
Tickets: $5-$33, available at 651-690-6700 or oshag.stkate.edu.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.