Tempesta di Mare revisits ‘1721: A Very Good Year’

by Michael Caruso
Posted 3/25/21

On the same weekend, Tempesta di Mare assembled a fabulous roster of pieces from that particular calendar year in the 18th century, and the Philadelphia Orchestra rebroadcast online the final performance it gave last year before the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Tempesta di Mare revisits ‘1721: A Very Good Year’

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In 1965, as he celebrated his 50th birthday, Frank Sinatra released what many consider his finest album, “September of My Years.” It won the Grammy Award for Best Album of that year and included the song, “It Was a Very Good Year.”

It would seem that the powers-that-be at Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, are at least a tad aware of the album and the song. The ensemble’s most recent “virtual” concert referenced the song, in particular, with its title: “1721: A Very Good Year.” By surveying that particular calendar year early in the 18th century, as the Baroque style was reaching its zenith, leading into the Rococo and then the Classical, co-directors Gwyn Roberts and Richard Stone assembled a fabulous roster of pieces, culminating in Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major.”

The program’s other works included Georg Philipp Telemann’s “Overture in G: Nations Ancient and Modern,” Pietro Antonio Locatelli’s “Concerto Grosso in C minor,” and Evaristo Felice dall’Abaco’s “Concerto in E minor.”

The concert was recorded “live” at the Tyler Arboretum in nearby Media, Delaware County, and was available online for a week during the middle of March.

Like many other period instruments ensembles throughout America, Tempesta’s concert programs often focus on music written by composers other than the “Baroque Big Three”: Bach, George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi. The reason behind this repertoire choice is obvious. Most contemporary Americans who like classical music as a genre know very little Baroque music, with Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and Handel’s “Messiah” the rare exceptions. The music of Mozart and Haydn launch the repertoire for most concertgoers, and then the repertoire from Beethoven and Schubert on through the early 20th century lives and breathes in the comfort zone.

Still most American classical music lovers know a smattering of Bach and Handel, so it has only made sense for period instruments orchestras like Tempesta to highlight the lesser lights of the Baroque era. Unfortunately, this often means that audiences rarely hear the great orchestral works of Bach and Handel anywhere, at all. Modern symphonic ensembles, such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, rarely program even Bach’s “Orchestral Suites” or “Brandenburg Concerti” or Handel’s “Water Music Suites” or “Music for the Royal Fireworks” for fear of not playing them according to the rules and regulations of “historic authenticity.”

Thank goodness for Roberts and Stone, then. The “very good year” of 1721 gave us Bach’s “audition pieces” for a post with the Margrave of Brandenburg. Although Bach didn’t get the job, audiences ever since received his “Six Brandenburg Concerti,” and Tempesta performed the Fourth for this concert.

The score features two recorders and violin as its soloists against the full ensemble of strings, harpsichord and theorbo. Gwyn Roberts & Forrest Ransburg were the recorder players with concertmaster Emlyn Ngai filling out the solo trio.    

Both the soloists and the full ensemble caught the lively spirit of the Fourth Concerto’s opening Allegro, proffering a vibrant texture of counterpoint between the two recorders and the violin as well as between the soloists and the tutti. The exquisite echoing between the two groups that characterizes the second movement Andante was delineated with seamless legato while the whole ensemble rendered the fugal complexities of the closing movement with dazzling clarity.

Telemann’s “affectation” of nations ancient and modern is an unusual attempt to connect the older styles with the newer in a series of movements that were probably embellished with dancing in his day. Even without the explanatory choreography, Tempesta’s musicians projected the contrasting fashions with beauty and vitality.

The ensemble played Locatelli’s “Concerto Grosso in C minor” with panache. The lower strings of viola, cello & violone plus harpsichordist Patrick Merrill laid out a solid foundation upon which the other players projected the composer’s “Roman gracefulness.” Dall’Abaco’s “Concerto in E minor” opened the concert in a reading that made the most of its fine writing. 

BEETHOVEN 5 & 6

Over the same weekend in March, the Philadelphia Orchestra rebroadcast online the final performance it gave last year before the COVID-19 pandemic forced it into lockdown along with the rest of America. That performance was given Thursday, March 12, in an empty Verizon Hall and included stellar renditions of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies under Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s inspired baton.

What a joy to hear our “Fabulous Philadelphians” at full throttle in two of the most telling and distinctive parts of the standard symphonic canon. Beethoven’s music, although composed two centuries ago, still resonates in its beauty and power.

You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net

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