Performing incidental music from a movie or play in concert can be a gamble: Will a score never meant to engage the audience on its own hold the stage by itself?
Tempesta di Mare played its hand deftly on Saturday night at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, bringing verve, grace, and spark to music that wasn't always worthy of such treatment but did always benefit from it.
The first half of the program was music heard in London theaters in the decades on each side of 1700. The stately overture and lively dances Henry Purcell wrote for Congreve's farce The Double Dealer came off well, never overstaying their welcome; a zesty hornpipe featuring two recorders was a particular delight.
Next came four brief concertos of the sort pit bands played between acts. One composer whose music was popular for that purpose was Arcangelo Corelli; the piece performed here, Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 10, wasn't nearly as captivating, although concertmaster Emlyn Ngai improvised some delightful flourishes during the central slow movement. The similar Sinfonia di concerto grosso No. 5 by Alessandro Scarlatti had more substance, as well as some of the little surprises this composer liked to stash in his scores.
The real treat was Concerto No. 5 for two recorders and strings by the all-but-forgotten Englishman William Babell, with soloists Gwyn Roberts and Aik Shin Tan dispatching their parts with more charisma and elegance than you'd think was possible from those simple little pipes you blew into in third-grade music class.
After the intermission came the set that seemed most promising: excerpts from the score that the great 17th-century French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote for Molière's comedy Le Malade imaginaire. The selections' titles were promisingly odd: pieces for dancing upholsterers, surgeons, pharmacists, and (in a later scene) Moors. Yet the music itself seemed no more whimsical or exotic than any other French Baroque dances - and, in truth, by that point I'd heard enough of music that was never intended to be the primary focus of our attention.
Just in time, the evening became an entirely different concert, and Tempesta di Mare became an entirely different band - one for zarzuela, Spain's equivalent of operetta or Rodgers & Hammerstein. Out came the drums and castanets and claves; the music cooked, swung, and sashayed in fabulous estilo español.
These treats were songs for Roman gods from Destinos vencen finezas, a retelling of the story of Dido and Aeneas composed by Juan Francisco de Navas for a royal wedding in 1698 and performed here for possibly the first time since. Mezzo Maren Montalbano seemed not quite fully comfortable with her boy-voice for Cupid, but as Venus and Juno, she was pure, suave, and sensuous, delivering rapid-fire Spanish with rhythmic flair and high spirits.