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Baroque orchestra Tempesta di Mare celebrates ever-present, ever-elusive Telemann

Georg Philipp Telemann wasn't easy on the Philadelphia baroque orchestra Tempesta di Mare Saturday night amid an international conference of scholars. But the concert crackled.

Tempesta di Mare chamber orchestra bows at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater Saturday night.
Tempesta di Mare chamber orchestra bows at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater Saturday night.Read moreDavid Patrick Stearns

Long known as history's most prolific composer, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) emerged as a classic "hiding in plain sight" figure in Saturday's concert by Tempesta di Mare at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.

Presented in the midst of Temple University's international conference in this 250th anniversary of  Telemann's death, Tempesta's concurrent Telemann 360 Degrees festival revisited how the composer eclipsed none other than J.S. Bach in his own time and bridged two distinct eras of music. In more recent centuries, he has fallen from grace, though hearing this agreeable, spirited concert might leave you wondering why. By the end, I had my answer: Telemann refused to reveal himself.

That's not what composers did in those days. But throughout the concert's three sprawling works that demanded some 28 instrumentalists with a healthy representation of winds and brass, you would expect to know the artist a bit better than when you walked in.

In contrast to the more demure Telemann, who sometimes limited his musical expression to only one idea at a time or kept all moving parts simple when juggling counterpoint, Saturday's Concerto in F and Violin Concerto in F were sophisticated, well-chosen works written for a crack collection of Dresden musicians. Orchestrations had all kinds of ricochet moments with players completing one another's musical sentences. The first piece was sort of a concerto for everything, employing every possible effect in the manner of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Recurring gestures from the orchestra – functioning like an 18th-century jazz riff – announced the next solo turn or unlikely duet, punctuated by some of the most ornate horn writing in the literature. Exhilarating indeed. But by the end, though, I hadn't heard a single melody with a distinctive personality.

Harmonically, the Violin Concerto in F had loads of personality, but given a blindfold test, I'd think it was Telemann's Czech contemporary Jan Dismas Zelenka due to the music's many quirks. Musical thoughts seemed to begin in midstream. And what was that recurring hiccup in the first few moments? Is this the real Telemann? The "Corsicana" movement felt like a side trip to Vivaldi's Venice. In later movements, the composer seemed to forget that this was a violin concerto, giving the soloist little to do. Was Telemann a bit drifty?

Entr'actes, a suite of multipurpose interludes for the Dresden court, was heard for the first time in recent centuries, and showed Telemann dutifully retreating from the foreground, like a perfect guest.

Performance-wise, the concert was among Tempesta di Mare's best, partly because the lack of polish had a spirit of adventure. Struggling to meet this music on its own virtuosic terms gave the concert much electricity. Always good to hear, violinist Emlyn Ngai had a particularly strong magnetic force. Throughout, Tempesta cofounder Gwyn Roberts was in particularly solid form on baroque flute, while Priscilla Herreid was downright amazing on baroque oboe. The concert is being recorded for commercial release; I have a feeling the horns will need retakes.