by Michael Caruso
Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, brought its 2017-18 season of concerts to a close Sunday afternoon, May 20. The concert, entitled “River Music” and comprised of works by Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach, was performed at the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill.
The originally scheduled venue had been the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, the regular site of Tempesta’s concerts in Chestnut Hill. But the Presbyterian Church had been unintentionally double booked — the “other” ensemble being the Pennsylvania Girl Choir. Fortunately for Tempesta and its Sunday audience, St. Martin’s Church was available at 4 p.m., giving us all the chance to hear Tempesta’s baroque period instrumentalists at work within the context of a different acoustical setting.
Just because St. Martin’s is among the loveliest churches in Greater Philadelphia doesn’t necessarily mean that its visual beauty will translate intact to sonic beauty of equal stature. Whereas Chestnut Hill Presbyterian may be most memorable for its plainness, there’s not a musician in the region that questions its superb acoustics. The immaculate blend of clarity and resonance make the church a perfect choice for either choruses or instrumental ensembles of moderate size.
As it turned out, St. Martin’s added another entry onto its lists of winning characteristics. With a full band of Baroque players and four vocal soloists placed at the intersection of its nave and transept, the sound of the singing and playing projected evenly and fully to the back of the Church, its Tiffany rose window of its patron saint, Martin of Tours, and its alabaster baptismal font.
The program’s principal work was Bach’s secular cantata, “Schleicht, spielende Wellen” (Slide, playful ripples), a musical anthology of the Rivers Vistula, Elbe, Danube and Pleisse, all flowing within the boundaries of the realm of King Friedrich August II of Saxony.
The score opens and closes with a chorus supported by a full complement of violins, violas, flutes, oboes, bassoon, cello, double bass, harpsichord, theorbo, trumpets and timpani. Here the chorus was comprised of the afternoon’s four vocal soloists: soprano Laura Heimes, mezzo Meg Bragle, tenor Aaron Sheehan and baritone Randall Scarlata. Each had his or her solo recitative and aria depicting the character of one of the four rivers in between those full-scale choruses, starting from the lowest in range and rising to the highest.
Tenor Sheehan’s singing in “Elbe” was particularly effective. He employed his high timbre and exemplary breath control to reach and hold notes in the highest part of his register. Using a small, focused vibrato — really a delicate tremolo — his singing was agile and flexible yet incredibly expressive in its lyrical phrasing, often swelling dynamically on a single note to emphasize its importance.
Bragle’s light mezzo was especially suitable for delineating the character of the Danube in the German language text entitled “Donau.” Her accompanying complement was comprised of two oboes, bassoon and harpsichord, and she flawlessly fit her voice into the counterpoint of their voices to establish a lively conversation between the four wind lines and the plucked tones of the harpsichord. Priscilla Herreid and Fiona Last were the superb oboists, Anna Marsh was the splendid bassoonist, and Adam Pearl was the magnificent harpsichordist.
Baritone Scarlata’s pronounced vibrato marred his scale-work in “Weichsel” (Vistula). On the opposite side of the coin, Soprano Heimes’ use of total straight tone in the fashion of a boy treble seemed better suited to the polyphony of Renaissance sacred choral music than to the Baroque operatic style of Bach’s secular cantatas.
Prior to intermission and the Bach, Tempesta’s masterful instrumentalists gave a riveting reading to Telemann’s “Hamburger Ebbe und Flut” (Ebb and Flood in Hamburg). In this work of unabashed program music, Telemann composed some of the most engaging music of his illustrious and productive career. Led by concertmaster Emlyn Ngai, Tempesta di Mare’s players caught the character of both the Elbe River as its flows past Hamburg on its way to the North Sea and Germany’s preeminent and wealthiest port city in a series of dances with shifting emotions like the colors in a rainbow.
The Ouverture was festive, the Sarabande graceful, the Bouree agitated, the Loure almost somber, the Gavotte fleet-footed, the Harlequinade mischievous with a double bass solo beautifully played by Anne Peterson, Storming Aeolus swiftly propelled, the Menuet gently lyrical, the Gigue energetic, and the closing Canarie exploding with all the stops let out.
Tempesta di Mare has announced its 2018-19 season featuring seven concerts in Chestnut Hill that include a performance of the original Dublin version of Handel’s “Messiah.” For more information, Visit www.tempestadimare.org or call 215-755-8776.
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