Review: Tenacious Tempesta celebrates 10

Tempesta di Mare musicians (from left) Richard Stone, lutenist and cofounder; Emlyn Ngai, concertmaster, and Gwyn Roberts, flutist/recorder and cofounder.
Tempesta di Mare musicians (from left) Richard Stone, lutenist and cofounder; Emlyn Ngai, concertmaster, and Gwyn Roberts, flutist/recorder and cofounder.
Posted: May 22, 2012

Tempesta di Mare’s 10th anniversary concert so easily could have sunk into the wrong kind of cuteness: Every piece on Saturday’s program, titled “OPUS 10: Orchestra,” had some connection with the number 10. And what obscure choices that might have led to!

Instead, the concert at the Arch Street Friends Meeting House managed to mix mainstream baroque works by Vivaldi et al. with discoveries of momentary interest, such as John Stanley’s Harpsichord Concerto (Op. 10, No. 10), and ones you want to revisit often, such as Jean-Marie Leclair’s little-known Violin Concerto (Op. 10, No. 5), which was arguably the most substantial piece on the program.

In fact, Handel (who threatened to tower above the others) was almost outclassed, though the 10th Concerto Grosso of his Op. 6 collection is not the best of the bunch. Then again, the group’s search for ten-ness led to Telemann’s Orchestra Suite in E minor with the puzzling catalog number TWV 55: e 10, an absorbing exception to the composer’s often routine output.

The performance standard was extremely high. Tempesta di Mare has its ups and downs while eking out some semblance of personality and substance in works that perhaps are best left to gather dust in libraries. But hearing this group supported by excellent repertoire not only brought back memories of its best concerts, but at times surpassed them. It’s possible that cofounder Gwen Roberts, on baroque flute and recorder, has never played better; she was particularly scintillating in the Telemann suite. On a fine, double-manual harpsichord with a nice, fat-free sound, Adam Pearl played the Stanley concerto (which inhabited its genre without adding to it) with particular clarity of intent. Overall, concertmaster Emlyn Ngai led crisp performances with on-the-edge speed and unshakable security and, in the Leclair concerto, projected both structure and expressive content in ways that let listeners get beyond the superficial charm factor.

All those factors are particularly important with baroque music, which can seem merely quaint and orderly. Often, the music is an expression of personal liberty. Time and again, you heard Leclair setting up a particular pattern of phrases and then breaking away from it. For all its outward refinement, this music was often designed to thrill.

Even Alessandro Scarlatti, whose works sometimes stuck so close to the lingua franca of the day as to be uneventful to modern ears, seemed to be full of incident in his Sinfonia X, thanks to the performance’s rhythmic intensity. Vivaldi seems short-breathed when listeners are given too much time to think about the music — not the case in the Recorder Concerto in F (Op. 10, No. 5), which, in any case, had an arrestingly melancholic slow movement. The venue was woody and pleasant.

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

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