In Chestnut Hill, Tempesta di Mare plays Jommelli, Caldara - and Vivaldi

Posted: February 07, 2012

For years, Tempesta di Mare has liberated its programs from the masterpiece mentality that often comes with higher-budget organizations. At Sunday's concert at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, hardly a brand-name composer (excepting Antonio Vivaldi) or a previously known piece was heard. Tempesta di Mare is an old-music group that acts like a new-music group, by pushing the cutting edge back rather than forward. And, as in new-music concerts, expectations must shift: You won't always appreciate everything. In several cases, pieces had extremely modest claims on posterity.

Performance-wise, the primary attraction at Sunday's "Italians in Vienna" program was Michael Maniaci, who is billed as a soprano (his natural singing voice) as opposed to a countertenor (his vocal next-of-kin). Early on, his full-bodied voice tended to spread under pressure in higher volumes and in his upper range. By the end, though, there was a wonderful clarity to his passagework. And at every turn, his sympathy for the music ran deep, with a wonderful sense for shaping recitatives and making an aria phrase land with grace and confidence.

As for the repertoire, the cantata Perché son Molli had an airborne lyricism that reminded you how great Vivaldi can be. Not so much with the Carlo Agostino Badia cantata La Fenice, which could have come off as simpleminded had Maniaci not managed to summon some folksy charm.

Much of the rest of the program comprised instrumental works by such 18th-century composers as Niccolò Jommelli and Antonio Caldara. Though their vocal works have rightly gained traction in recent years, the instrumental ones heard here - Trio No. 6 for Two Flutes and Cello and Cello Concerto in D minor, respectively - were nice but inconsequential. Vivaldi wrote some short-winded concertos in his time, but few as slight as Concerto for Two Flutes in C. You might call it the minute concerto.

One consistently alluring piece was Trio Sonata in A by Johann Joseph Fux, edited for this concert from a manuscript in Dresden. The music often departed, if only subtly, from the various chord progressions and melodic formulas that were so standard during this time. Such aspects of the piece may not have been considered virtues in the time when the music was written. But one can't trade in 21st-century ears for 18th-century ones, at least in a concert as unevenly prepared as this. The Caldara was the kind of performance that makes early-music skeptics more skeptical. The rest was more polished, but I would have preferred less music - played with more thought to what it meant in its own time and how that meaning could be translated to our time.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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