by Michael Caruso
Philadelphia’s baroque orchestra, Tempesta di Mare, opened its 2015-16 concert season Friday, Oct. 23, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The ensemble’s program was entitled “Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse” in a double reference to the owner of a Leipzig coffeehouse Johann Sebastian Bach frequented upon his moving to the German city in 1723 and Robert Zimmerman, a longtime Tempesta board member in whose honor the Zimmerman Artistic Opportunities Fund has been launched.
The evening’s guest soloist was soprano Julianne Baird, an iconic artist in the period instruments movement that has sought to revive the performance practices of the late 17th & early 18th century Baroque style. Baird was at the forefront of the mission and can now celebrate the fruition of so much hard work with a voice that deserves a paraphrasing of Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra in “Antony and Cleopatra”: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” In my opinion, the years have splendidly deepened that voice through the maturity of experience.
Baird was heard to stunning effect in “Heute noch, lieber Vater tut es doch,” the second of two arias she sang from Bach’s hilarious yet inspired “Coffee Cantata,” BWV 211. The clarity and agility of her singing was perfectly matched by her expressive use of small touches of vibrato on long-held notes and immaculately delivered embellishments. Even more impressive, she maintained a consistency of timbre from the bottom of her register to the top of her range.
The program also featured a sterling reading of Bach’s “Violin Concerto in A minor” with Tempesta concertmaster Emlyn Ngai as the exemplary soloist.
Christmas in Germany: Tempesta di Mare will be joined in concert by the members of Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, and Choral Arts Philadelphia for “Christmas in Germany” Saturday, Dec. 19, 8 p.m., in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. For more information visit www.tempestadimare.org or call 215-755-8776.
Donald Runnicles guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra for the second weekend in a row Oct. 23, 23 and 24. Once again he constructed a program for his Verizon Hall concerts that put the traditional overture-concerto-intermission-symphony into reverse gear. He opened the performance with Mozart’s “Symphony No. 29 in A major”before intermission, then led Brahms’ “Double” Concerto and Strauss’ “Don Juan” after the interval.
The previous weekend, it was the concert’s final work, Brahms’ Variations on the “St. Anthony Chorale,” that received the evening’s finest rendition. For the performance of Saturday, Oct. 25, it was Strauss’ evocation of the debauched life of the Spanish nobleman/reprobate Don Juan (“Don Giovanni” in Mozart’s immortal opera) that was given the concert’s most memorable reading.
Strauss’ tone poems were the natural successors of Liszt’s symphonic poems filtered through the crucible of Wagner’s operas and the narrative developmental techniques he advanced in them. In “Don Juan,” Strauss not so much retold the legend of the 17th century seducer as he offered a musical contemplation on the reprobate’s immoral excesses.
Strauss enlisted all the excesses of orchestration his imagination could conceive for “Don Juan,” conjuring up the sounds of luscious strings, focused woodwinds, booming brass and scintillating percussion to delineate the character (or lack thereof) of a man who was the disgrace of the Spanish aristocracy of his day. And Runnicles once again elicited magnificent playing from the Philadelphians.
Mozart’s 29th Symphony is often regarded as his first true masterpiece in the genre invented by Haydn. Completed when he was only 18 years old, the score is a marvel of concise elegance, filled to overflowing with gracious phrases, exquisite scoring and remarkable thematic development. Runnicles led a reading that showed just how well an orchestra playing on modern instruments is able to deliver the aesthetics of 18th century music in a large concert hall.
The soloists for the Brahms “Double” Concerto were the Orchestra’s concertmaster and principal cellist, David Kim and Hai-Ye Ni. Their performances showed the special level of collaboration that develops within an ensemble of such esteem as the Philadelphia Orchestra.
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