2013–2014 Concert Series: “Elements”
“Tempesta played with such energy and color that the wit, emotion, and drolleries that continue to define French art were brought to pulsing life.”
“A little wordplay in its title set the tone for Tempesta di Mare’s exploration of late French baroque tone painting in its concert Saturday at the Perelman Theater. The ensemble, ending a season-long study of French bases for much of European music, called its final thrust “Elements.” That pointed to the fundament on which much music rests,but also to Parisian delight in portraying fire, earth, air, and water.
Just how prophetic the composers were was summarized in the first chord of Jean-Fery Rebel’s Les Elements. To portray chaos, Rebel’s orchestra played a jam of a full octave, an effect like that of pounding a forearm on the keyboard. No Rebel, no Ives, the ensemble was arguing.
But lest this seem a history lesson or charting of trends, Tempesta played with such energy and color that the wit, emotion, and drolleries that continue to define French art were brought to pulsing life. It also gave listeners with the advantage of three-century hindsight ample chance to hear modern composers’ evolving use of orchestral devices piquant in the 17th- and 18th-century salons.
In its elemental journey, the ensemble played music from Marin Marais’ opera Alcyone (including a tempest), and Telemann’s Hamburger Ebb und Fluth, a forerunner of Handel’s Water Music and other river celebrations. Instrumentation invited images of lapping flames, surging tides, the whisper of air, and some bumpy landings on Earth. Audiences were in for exciting, sensual travel in those days.
Implicit in the writing was the available virtuosity of the performers. To portray air, Rebel wrote for violin delicacy scarcely weightier than air itself. Marais’ “Tempest” gathered clouds, thunder, and lightning. The basses were expected to execute as rapidly as the violins. Telemann offered a north German view of storms, gentle winds, and surging tide – all using the relatively soft-voiced baroque strings and winds.
Notable in all this was concertmaster Emlyn Ngai’s eloquent precision. In baroque style, he led the orchestra in every sense, providing decoration, power, and feathery bowing to give these works clarity and theatricality. Within the ensemble, the six wind players multiplied the colors the composers sought. Ensemble founder and codirector Gwyn Roberts led the trio of flutes and recorders in the varied displays of brilliant passagework and soulful song. Bassoonist Anna Marsh, a sturdy voice throughout, had starring parts in the Rebel music. With oboists Debra Nagy and Stephen Bard, this wind group found shadings and splashes to sharpen the tone painting going on in the strings.
This was the ensemble’s second concert in the Perelman, which proved helpful in preserving the detail and color this music demands. The character of the two theorbos (one played by codirector Richard Stone) emerged clearly, and the subtle thumps of the drums in Marais and Telemann added witty comment to the music’s aspirations. The playing celebrated all the elements.” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 7, 2014
“… a perfect ending for Tempesta’s season.”
“The suites taken from music composed for Baroque operas, ballets, and plays contain some of the most charming music in the Baroque repertoire. For its second appearance at the Perelman Theater, the Tempesta di Mare Baroque Orchestra presented two pieces of theater music in a theater roughly the same size as the theaters that 18th-century composers had in mind when they penned their opuses. The program’s third item was a piece d’occasion that evoked such theatrical subjects as frolicking boat people and amorous sea gods.
The three pieces were tied together by their musical depictions of the classic four elements: air, earth, fire, and water. Marin Marais’s 1706 opera Alcyone exposes its characters to the perils of the sea. Telemann’s 1736 “Hamburg Ebb and Flow” celebrated the 100th anniversary of the sea forces that guarded Hamburg’s maritime trade. Jean-Frey Rebel’s 1737 ballet Les Elements depicted the emergence of the elements from chaos— a very modern subject, even though our current worldview includes a different, somewhat larger set of elements.
The charming quality of this music is no accident. It was created for productions that were meant to divert and entertain. Alcyone includes a march for sailors and a happy jig, even though Marais called the opera a tragédie en musique (it ends with the heroine killing herself because her fiancée died at sea). Like most 18th and 19th century opera composers, Marais didn’t waste an opportunity for a lively musical bit.
It’s also music that must be played on the Baroque instruments that Tempesta prefers. Modern strings would have sounded too smooth. Modern woodwinds would have sounded too brilliant.
Tempesta fielded a full Baroque orchestra— Baroque winds and strings, recorders, Baroque flutes and oboes, a Baroque bassoon, some small-scale percussion, and a harpsichord reinforced by the long-necked lute played by co-director Richard Stone. In the Marais work, the violins were divided into three sections, instead of the two used nowadays, and the violas into two. The extra voices created a more complex texture, but they must have increased the demands on the musicians— especially since they were playing Baroque style, without a conductor.
The second half opened with one of the most striking introductions any composer has ever imagined, before or since. Rebel opened Les Elements with a huge blast of sound, representing chaos, that sounded like it had been composed for a Hitchcock film. He created this startling, unexpectedly chilling effect by sounding all seven notes of the D minor scale at once. All the basic building blocks of music slam into the audience simultaneously, clashing and harmonizing with no attempt at organization. It’s a musical conception that sounds just as contemporary as our modern scientific picture of the simplest elements emerging from the chaos that followed the Big Bang.
In any group of suites taken from theatrical productions, one or two pieces are bound to seem draggy without the singing and dancing that originally accompanied them. In Baroque suites, the sections are so short that you can sit through a dull spot secure in the knowledge that something new will come along very soon. The three suites in this concert included 30 sections. The forms included lively dances like the gavotte and the canarie, slower dances like the sarabande, and complex forms like the chaconne.
The orchestration added more variety. High violins represented fire. Flutes and recorders played bird songs. Winds and strings played against each other in inventive combinations.
In addition to her work with tambourine, castanets, and a small drum, percussionist Michelle Humphreys created the tempest in Alcyone by rolling a long decorated cloth across a hand-cranked cylinder. I don’t know if that’s an authentic Baroque instrument, but it definitely created authentic wind sounds.
For the encore, Tempesta repeated a section of Los Elements that summed up the evening’s best features— the tambourine movement that represents water. As the cellos and basses maintained the steady beat of the tambourine theme, racing passages on high violins and flutes alternated with memorable solos for Anna Marsh’s Baroque bassoon. It was a perfect evocation of a flowing river, rushing through narrows and slowing in broader areas, and a perfect ending for Tempesta’s season.
Like most local chamber and early music groups, Tempesta di Mare usually plays in venues like the Arch Street Meeting House, where it holds most of its concerts nowadays. Churches and Quaker meetinghouses make perfectly satisfactory concert halls, but appearances in the Kimmel Center expose Philadelphia musical organizations to a larger local audience. Tempesta di Mare has achieved a worldwide reputation with its recordings and tours, but it isn’t as well known in Philadelphia as it should be— even though it carefully tells the world it is the Tempesta di Mare Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra. Co-director Gwyn Roberts added a welcome touch to this concert when she announced that Tempesta will return to the Perelman next season.” Broad Street Review, June 10, 2014