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All-Girl Orchestra Honors Vivaldi

May 16, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ An all-girl orchestra _ 44 teen-agers and a 9-year-old fiddler _ gets together for just one performance Sunday at the John F. Kennedy Center, in memory of a group that composer Antonio Vivaldi put together at an orphanage in Venice nearly 300 years ago.

They will start with the ``Spring″ movement from Vivaldi’s ``Four Seasons,″ which has become one of the most popular classical pieces since it was revived in 1950. It has been recorded more than 150 times.

``He may have written that for the girls, too,″ said Bonnie Simon, executive director of the Washington Chamber Symphony, which is sponsoring the performance. ``He was working for the orphanage at the time it appeared. But we don’t know.″

A dozen girls were picked Friday as soloists, including violinist Michelle Gajewski, 9, of Gaithersburg, Md., and 17-year-old trumpeter Catherine Armstrong of Alexandria, Va., who is blind.

Another work on the program is the first one that Vivaldi is known to have published, at age 13. It is a setting of a psalm: ``Laetatus sum″ (``I was glad″).

Known as ``the red-headed priest who plays the violin,″ Vivaldi had a contract with the orphanage. It called for him to write two concertos a month for 60 ducats a year, roughly $2,150 in today’s money, although he got a raise later. He also had to teach and to direct some performances.

Vivaldi started the job at 25 and kept it on and off for 30 years. It gave him time to make a lot more money writing operas and directing them.

Nearly all the American girls and their families paid their own expenses to come to Washington after they were selected in competitions held from coast to coast. In Venice, the orphanage provided the girls with dowries.

Vivaldi’s weekend concerts became a big tourist attraction in Venice despite the fact that the girls were usually concealed by screens, as if in a convent. The French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau called them ``angels of loveliness″ when he heard them and wrote in his famous ``Confessions″ that he was disappointed when he actually got a look. Then he added:

``Ugliness does not exclude charms ... Finally my way of looking at them changed so much that I left nearly in love with all those ugly girls.″

No other performance is planned, although organizers are trying to get one in Venice. Excerpts from Sunday’s concert will be shown at an undetermined date on the Lifetime cable TV channel.