Tempesta di Mare’s latest concert was a little gift from the 18th century: two hours of music from an era when composers routinely produced work meant to be heard for the sheer pleasure of it. Tempesta celebrated its 15th season and its directors, Gwyn Roberts and Richard Stone, picked compositions that suited the occasion.
Pleasure and pain
You could hear that commitment to pleasure in the first notes of the opening piece, an overture for double orchestra by Johann Gottlieb Janitsch. There were no brasses on stage but woodwinds and strings created a graceful trumpeting sound. The rest of the piece was primarily an engaging dialogue between a violin and flute section on the left side of the stage and violins and oboes on the right.
The program’s second item supported the ancient truth that you don’t have to be a nice guy to make audiences happy. According to Roberts and Stone’s scholarly, highly readable program notes, Johann Sigismund Kusser had a “volatile temper” that kept him moving from job to job and country to country. Kusser’s professional skills would get him off to a good start at each new post, but every relationship ended in a “spectacular blowup.”
Kusser might have been a pain to work with, but his music didn’t reflect his personality disorders. His overture from a collection titled Apollo at Play was an entertaining procession of dances and airs with a driving rouser in the section labeled “Les Furies.” One of its biggest attractions was the percussion work supplied by Michelle Humphreys. The snare drum and tambourines she played are less dominating than modern drums, but they emphasized the beat in dance segments, added color in other sections, and generally supported the overture’s rustic atmosphere.
Baroque orchestra music tends to be written for strings and winds, but Tempesta’s concerts always feel livelier when Humphreys contributes to some of the pieces. In the Rameau suite that ended the concert, there was a particularly nice moment for percussion and recorder, a combination you will encounter in no other musical genre.
Like Piffaro, Philadelphia’s other period-instrument group, Tempesta di Mare’s musicians often play more than one instrument. Priscilla Herreid plays principal oboe but joined Gwyn Roberts and Héloise Degrugillier in the recorder section during Kusser’s opus. The chirping of three recorders created another sound unique to Baroque period-instrument music. Roberts and Degrugillier, in turn, doubled on the wooden Baroque flute.
The centerpiece of the evening was Vivaldi’s “Spring” concerto from The Four Seasons. Tempesta has devoted most of its concerts this season to Vivaldi’s best-known work, playing one concerto at each concert and surrounding it with works that place the concerto in its stylistic milieu. Tempesta’s musicians carried off effects like the shepherd’s barking dog with style, and concertmaster Emlyn Ngai played the solo violin role with his customary aplomb.
One of Tempesta’s virtues is that you can usually hear the unique voice of each section, rather than an undifferentiated blend. It was a particularly important quality in the finale, a Rameau ballet suite. When the bass surged, you heard it rising through the sounds created by the other sections; that surge wasn’t lost in a unified mass.
Roberts and Stone have created a long-lived organization and enhanced the national and international reputation of our city. Anyone who looks into the economics of the arts knows that’s an achievement and demands a major commitment.