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Cycle of life through a baroque-era lens

J.S. Bach is said to have been so inventive you could hand him a modern phone directory and he would make it sing.

J.S. Bach is said to have been so inventive you could hand him a modern phone directory and he would make it sing.

That theory was tested in Tempesta di Mare's enterprising program of three generations of baroque-era composers, solidly but not so probingly performed Saturday at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, in which Bach was the best-known name but at times had the least to work with.

Framed by Michael Praetorius and Johann Rosenmüller, Bach accounted for two of five cantatas that traced a cradle-to-the-grave life cycle, the oddest being a birthday piece, Duchlauchtigster Leopold, whose text is full of obsequious, embarrassing praise for the prince being celebrated. Bach seized the occasion to toy around with techniques he maybe couldn't get away with elsewhere, the eccentric results no doubt keeping the piece out of anybody's top 10 cantatas. But you have to hear it once.

One aria has bare-bones cello and bass accompaniment, another has fluffy, busy duo-flute obbligatos that belong on a birthday cake, and one recitative goes far beyond its usual information-bearing capacity with two voices starting out in harmony and springing off into separate, ever-more-rhapsodic flights of coloratura.

The second Bach cantata, Komm, du süsse Todesstunde, BWV 161, is more typical but has similar duo recorder obbligatos working overtime, even in the final chorale, which ends with the question, "Death, how can you harm me?" that's echoed with music that stops one chord shy of resolution.

The wedding cantata by Rosenmüller, Es muss dir, wertes Paar, gelingen, had a modern premiere - a recently rediscovered piece that has each vocal soloist playing a mythological character (individual arias that act like operatic monologues) amid pious choruses. Somehow, the music isn't stylistically scattered for reasons that will be clearer when more Rosenmüller comes to light.

Praetorius had only middling inspiration compared to the rest, represented by Das alte Jahr nun vergahn and Nun helft mir Gottes Güte Preisen, though you might not know that thanks to the singers' German diction. It wasn't simply good, but was projected vividly and with much meaning.

Soprano Laura Heims and countertenor Drew Minter delivered extra cognitive authority you'd expect from singers of such long experience. Tenor Aaron Sheehan had an ideal balance of weight and sound, though bass David Newman needed more personality. Overall, a stronger interpretive vision would've gone a long way here. The brisk tempos, for example, were inflexible, not always allowing the music's full content to emerge.