by Michael Caruso
Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia’s premiere baroque instruments orchestra, opened its 2019-20 season with a concert entitled “Orchestral Gardeners: Concerti and Suites by Handel and Telemann” Friday, Oct. 18, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Two principal scores by each 18th century master were performed for an audience that nearly filled the church’s main sanctuary and that supported the music making with hearty and well-deserved applause.
Fielding one of the largest ensembles I’ve ever seen and heard from the group, Tempesta di Mare’s program was a revelation. I’m a longtime lover of the music of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). I’m a great believer that even though he’s not the equal of his fellow German-born contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-2750) – nobody is, in my opinion – Handel nonetheless ranks just behind Ludwig van Beethoven and alongside Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when it comes to the roster of classical music geniuses.
So I was expecting to feel a little badly for Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767). I needn’t have worried. Although Handel’s Concerto Grosso in B-flat and Concerto Grosso in G are both absolutely lovely works, I was far more impressed by Telemann’s Concerto in F and “Entr’actes.” Both are among the most dazzling examples of the “grand style” of baroque music, and they opened and closed the concert magnificently.
Divided into six movements, the Concerto in F is an apotheosis of the baroque suite of dances and character pieces. Each strikes a particular tone or mood and then projects and develops it with elegance and intensity. Boasting 11 divisions, the “Entr’actes” somehow sustain a distinct connecting link from one to the next, all leading to a splendid conclusion.
Throughout both scores, Telemann displays not merely a commanding sense of individual emotional delineation and convincing structural control, but a superb feel for orchestral colors. His use of the strings as the foundational sonority against which the woodwinds and brass are cleverly arrayed is spectacular.
Even more impressive were the renditions given both these works. Despite the absence of an actual conductor – concertmaster Emly Ngai and lutenist/guitarist Richard Stone (and co-founder/co-director with Gwyn Roberts on flute and recorder) do offer interpretive guidance – ensemble was astoundingly tight Friday evening. And I don’t just mean in regard to entrances and cut-offs. Obviously, they were immaculately performed. The same must be said concerning balance and blend.
It was in the far more demanding issue of interpretation that this consistency of style and expression made their most lasting mark. Tempesta’s musicians played the music not in the fashion of historical restoration but with the feeling and conviction of great music performed for an appreciative audience.
And the Handel? It was played beautifully.
One final observation. Several readers of my column mentioned to me having heard the concert the following afternoon in the Episcopal Cathedral (Church of the Savior) in West Philadelphia. They were sorely disappointed by the venue’s poor acoustics for period instruments – muffled rather than supportive. Perhaps the powers-that-be at Tempesta might consider an alternative site for their center city concerts, such as either Old Christ Episcopal Church or Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in the Old City and Society Hill sections, respectively?
Chestnut Hillers eager to experience the music of the early November liturgies of All Saints/All Souls will have to make a choice between St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Sunday, Nov. 3, at 5 p.m. The former will perform Maurice Durufle “Requiem Mass’” as part of a Choral Eucharist. St. Martin’s will perform the “Requiem Mass” of Parker Kitterman, the music director at the historic Old Christ Episcopal Church.
Christ Ascension Lutheran Church, 8300 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill, will host an all-baroque chamber music concert Friday, Nov. 1, at 6:30 p.m. Among the performers will be mandolin player Gabriel Locati, the first-ever mandolin student at the Esther Boyer College of Music at Temple University. Visit FirstFridayConcerts.org for more information.
The Philadelphia Orchestra performed a trio of concerts Oct. 24, 25 and 26 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. The ensemble welcomed guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann to its podium, promoted its concertmaster David Kim to the role of concerto soloist, and followed the overall programming format of overture-concerto-intermission-symphony made famous by its illustrious former music director Eugene Ormandy during his 44-year tenure at the Orchestra’s helm.
Saturday evening’s concert opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture (“Fingal’s Cave”). It was followed by a rendition of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor featuring David Kim. Then, after intermission, the Philadelphians played Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major.
Although there was very little wrong with Stutzmann’s work on the podium, there was also very little to recommend it beyond the rating of “serviceable.” There was almost no feeling of being in the presence of a distinctive interpreter. Stutzmann put no personal stamp on either the Mendelssohn or the Brahms, and she merely accompanied Kim’s indifferent solo playing in the Bruch without major mishap. But there were discernible lapses in ensemble throughout the entire concert, and the Philadelphians never rose to anywhere near the standard of peerless playing their music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin has recently established for them. This was especially lamentable in Brahms’ Second Symphony, a masterful combination of Bach’s counterpoint and Beethoven’s development – and a stalwart of every music director since Fritz Scheel in 1900.