2015–2016 Concert Series: “Handel and His Frenemies”
“Smart, period-instrument performances…the playing always had a polished, plump sound…“
Chestnut Hill Local
“What made Handel’s mastery all the more apparent was the splendid performance the score received from the 20-member ensemble Tempesta di Mare fielded on the Perelman’s stage. Concertmaster Emlyn Ngai led the strings with both a firm yet sensitive hand while harpsichordist Adam Pearl and theorbist Stone provided the foundation for the flutes and oboes to proffer their piquant charms. The playing of Roberts on flute and Stephen Bard on oboe was especially noteworthy for its sensuous lyricism.”
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Handel rises above his frenemies
George Frideric Handel made a cameo appearance in the 1994 film Farinelli, and was about the only presence that wasn’t ridiculously romanticized. He swept in and out – irate, impatient, imposing, and fully aware of his superiority to his peers.
That image came to mind Saturday during Tempesta di Mare’s Saturday concert Handel & His Frenemies at the Kimmel Center: Smart, period-instrument performances put his music next to often-referenced but rarely heard composers such as Thomas Arne, Maurice Greene, and John Pepusch with unexpected benefits.
The real-life Handel fought a duel with a fellow harpsichordist, went broke periodically, had nervous breakdowns, endured divas ripping at each other’s clothes onstage, but maintained a consistent output that drew on any musical resource in reach. Helpful but un-opinionated program notes by co-directors Gwyn Roberts and Richard Stone left room for listeners to ponder the concert’s implications.
Young Handel performed operas by Reinhard Keiser, whose engaging “Concerto in D” had loose-cannon tendencies (like those stark, stabbing gestures) that seemed to re-surface in Handel’s “Il Pastor Fido” suite (heard later in the concert) though integrated into the music’s fabric in ways that made better musical sense.
In Arne’s “Symphony in D” and Giovanni Bononcini’s “Cello Concerto in F” (with soloist Lisa Terry in tentative form), two out of four movements were worth hearing. Pepusch’s overture to The Begger’s Opera was fascinating for what it wasn’t. Though the opera famously turned the tide away from Handel’s Italian-language operas, the overture started by sounding vaguely Handelian but headed down a self-consciously simplistic road with Anglo-tinged tunes that sound like shrewd marketing rather than anything artistic.
So was Handel an Everest amid foothills? Often. Handel did everything well, but unlike Bach, not equally well. Handel’s “Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 3” was charming but short-winded and a bit generic. But the lesser-known “Il Pastor Fido” suite (drawn from the opera’s dance movements) was a tour de force, each having a sound world of its own. Daringly spare passages had only two flutes and four violins. Or an oboe duet accompanied only by cello and theorbo with tension-generating cross rhythms. The opera’s scenario was flimsy, but Handel seemed more fully engaged by it.
And so was Tempesta. Though the playing always had a polished, plump sound, “Il Pastor Fido” was more incisive with a deeper sense of what the music says. Considering how the Perelman Theater was decked out in microphones, one can hope this concert will join Tempesta’s other recordings on the Chandos label. Philadelphia Inquirer, May 23, 2016
Chestnut Hill’s favorite baroque instruments ensemble, Tempesta di Mare, brought its 2015-16 season of concerts to a delightful finale Saturday, May 21, in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. The program was entitled “Handel & His Frenemies” and focused on that “other” titan of the Baroque style.
If George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) shared not just an era but also a year-of-birth with any other composer than Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), he would be regarded as a classical music genius whose only equal would be Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). With the possible exceptions of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, Handel would have no peers. But then there’s J.S. Bach – and no one else. Bach’s music achieves a level of technical mastery, consummate artistry and spiritual profundity that places it in a realm occupied by no other composer.
And yet, Bach’s supremacy in no way diminishes the sublime beauty of Handel’s music. His Italian-language operas are among the most ravishing scores ever composed, his instrumental music is among the most idiomatic ever written, and his oratorios – most obviously “Messiah” – are among the greatest artistic triumphs in any and all genres. It should never be forgotten that when, on his deathbed, Beethoven was given by a student the gift of the recently published works of Handel, he remarked, “He is a master from whom we can all still learn.” And whose music we can all still enjoy.
Tempesta artistic co-directors Gwyn Roberts & Richard Stone wisely chose to conclude each half of Saturday’s concert with a work by Handel, himself: the Concerto Grosso in E minor, Opus 6, no. 3, to end the first half, and the Suite from the opera, “Il Pastor Fido” (The Faithful Shepherd), to bring the entire concert to a close.
It was in the Suite that Saturday evening’s audience heard Handel at his best. His supreme gift for melody, his inventive yet sensitive use of harmony, his exquisite employment of embellishments, his nearly impressionistic talent for orchestration and giving the perfectly chosen instrument the role of projecting each eloquent motif, and his rock-solid command over form and structure were all on display throughout the Suite’s 11 movements. In its own way, this Suite is every bit as much as flawless masterpiece as is any of the Six “Brandenburg” Concerti of Bach – different, of course, but equal.
What made Handel’s mastery all the more apparent was the splendid performance the score received from the 20-member ensemble Tempesta di Mare fielded on the Perelman’s stage. Concertmaster Emlyn Ngai led the strings with both a firm yet sensitive hand while harpsichordist Adam Pearl and theorbist Stone provided the foundation for the flutes and oboes to proffer their piquant charms. The playing of Roberts on flute and Stephen Bard on oboe was especially noteworthy for its sensuous lyricism.
The Concerto Grosso in E minor as well as works by contemporaries Reinhard Keiser, Giovanni Bononcini, Maurice Greene, John Pepusch and Thomas Arne were also given expert renditions, but it was the playing of the Suite that most impressed me Saturday evening – and that sparked my fond memories of the Sunday afternoon concerts in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square by members of the former Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia. They were once among the highlights of the local classical music season. Perhaps Tempesta can bring them back. Chestnut Hill Local, May 26, 2016
Tempesta di Mare presents Handel and His Frenemies
Sword fights and cultural politics
The program notes that accompanied the latest Tempesta di Mare concert didn’t contain any comments on the music. The notes for this event were a chronicle of personal relationships and interesting anecdotes. Tempesta’s audience learned, for example, that George Frederick Handel fought a sword duel with another musician when he was 18 years old. Handel and his colleague got into a quarrel in an opera pit where they were both working as harpsichordists. They battled after the show but nobody was hurt; Handel’s adversary claimed they became better friends after the fight.
The notes didn’t tell you anything about the music because they didn’t need to do so. The seven selections on the program were all theater and concert pieces written by composers who wanted to attract cash customers in 18th Century London and Germany.
You don’t need a musicologist to tell you you’re going to like the sound of wooden Baroque flutes playing over 18th Century string instruments that are gentler and more nasal than modern strings. No one has to tell you “what to listen for” when you’re listening to music like the rolling polonaise in a Handel suite or the wind sonorities and sturdy English rhythms in an overture by Thomas Arne.
Tempesta dubbed this program “Handel and his Frenemies.” The selections were written by Handel and five composers who were his friends and rivals, often simultaneously.
Giovanni Bononcini was a cellist and composer who wrote operas for Handel’s opera company. His operas were so popular they were the main reason the company stayed solvent. Handel and Bononcini became embroiled in a political clash in spite of their close business association, because the Tories took up Handel and the Whigs supported Bononcini.
No matter. Bononcini’s Cello Concerto in F is an appealing piece. Tempesta’s principal cellist, Lisa Terry, reinforced its appeal with a reading that gave it some of the scale and intimacy of a guitar performance.
The most entertaining piece on the program for me was John Pepusch’s overture to The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay’s jibe at Italian opera. The overture starts, cheekily, with a speeded up, higher pitched version of the somber chords that open most 18th Century overtures. The popular tunes that follow let you know you’re hearing the prelude to a musical about highwaymen and bawds, not the legendary heroes and mythological figures that populated Italian opera.
Pepusch and Handel were friends and colleagues but The Beggar’s Opera truncated Handel’s career as an opera composer. He eventually turned to English language oratorios such as Messiah and earned a permanent place in the heart of the English public.
Tempesta di Mare’s concerts in the Perelman theatre are a rare opportunity to hear 18th-century theater music in a theater that’s roughly the size of the theaters for which it was written. Tempesta itself is one of the few organizations in the country that can take advantage of such a facility and present period instrument concerts with a full-size Baroque orchestra, and it is one of only five such orchestras in the United States. Broad Street Review, May 24, 2016
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