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Concentric Energies Fuel Tempesta di Mare

Tempesta di Mare, the Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season. (Photo by Andy Kahl)

Tempesta di Mare, the Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, is celebrating its 15th anniversary this season. (Photo by Andy Kahl)

By David Shengold

Gwyn Roberts and Richard Stone, baroque performers and educators of international renown, believe in ensemble. They are co-founders of the highly successful (and widely traveled) Tempesta di Mare, the Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, which opens its 15th anniversary season with concerts Oct. 21-23. Talking to them on a joint phone call about their vision was like engaging with two deeply intertwined chamber players: complementary phrases were tossed back and forth seamlessly.

Richard Stone, Gwyn Roberts, and Emlyn Ngai. (Andy Kahl)

Richard Stone, Gwyn Roberts, and Emlyn Ngai. (Andy Kahl)

Recorder and traverso player Roberts and lutenist Stone have been married since 1994, when they made Philadelphia their center of operations. The group’s name clicked for the nascent ensemble after a 1996 recording session with Roberts playing Veracini recorder sonatas. When she phoned the producer to say it was in the can, he asked what ensemble name they wanted affixed, adding, “This whole thing has got legs.”

After much coffee, Stone suggested the name of a bravura Vivaldi concerto (La tempesta di mare in F Major, RV 433). Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra was added to the name in 2002 for the inaugural season. When Tempesta presents smaller concerts, they group is under the rubric Chamber Players. Twenty-six is the largest configuration of musicians and the Kimmel Center‘s intimate Perelman Hall the largest venue. Smaller venues include churches, museum spaces, and the neoclassical American Philosophical Society.

Roberts, who studied recorder with Marion Verbrüggen in the Netherlands, believes strongly that the Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra’s success owes much to the methods the musicians have developed. “The key to making it work as a conductor-less ensemble is in the work process,” she said. “The preparation that we do before the whole orchestra shows up is essential when you have that many adults on a stage. It’s a matter of concentric circles. The creative impulses [in programming] tend to originate with me and Richard. Once the programs are decided, we get the music.”

Tempestra strings stand behind their instruments. (Andy Kahl)

Tempesta strings stand behind their instruments. (Andy Kahl)

Stone creates “in-house” editions of the works the ensemble performs, said Roberts. They choose the markings that go into the parts. Concertmaster Emlyn Ngai works on bowings for the strings. “Then we have literal concentric circles,” Roberts said. “Richard and I play all the rep; then we add in Emlyn and Lisa Terry, our principal cellist, and work until we’re unified about what we want to do with the music.” They rehearse with the other principal players before the rest of the orchestra arrives, which eventually finds “leadership impulses emanating from all over the stage.”

The ensemble has six such rehearsals before a concert. By Tempesta tradition, all but the cellists and keyboard players stand, which helps the musicians see and hear one another.

“Everyone knows and likes the process,” said Stone, “and though some have moved away, we have pretty much the same roster that we had at the start, so they know how it works and that it works. It’s not a democracy, but people can — and do — raise questions and ideas. When we’re contracting new people, we include a description of the process, so players know what to expect. No one’s bolted yet. It’s kind of like with a theater company: one assembles people who work well together, in the same artistic direction.”

Tempesta musicians take to the road. (Courtesy of Tempesta di Mare)

Tempesta musicians take to the road. (Courtesy of Tempesta di Mare)

Audiences at Tempesta events have some overlap with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Curtis Institute of Music. But if anything, the mix of students, informed seniors, and discerning academics resembles that at Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concerts — and the city’s questing local repertory theaters.

“All kinds of people come, for different reasons: interest in a specific instrument, cultural subject matter,” Roberts said.

“And they give us great feedback about what they have liked and would like,” said Stone, who, in addition to his activities as lutenist, has conducted operas and oratorios and teaches at The John Hopkins University’s Peabody Conservatory.

Tempesta’s 2016-17 concert series offers five full-ensemble events, four of them structured around a concerto from Vivaldi’s popular The Four Seasons. Stone said he and Roberts adore exploring unknown scores — “We’re repertoire hounds” — but that it also helps both musicians and audience to re-encounter familiar works. They plan to do with Vivaldi’s well-known concertos what they did with Bach’s Brandenburgs a few years back: perform them one per concert, surrounded by works that contextualize them.

For example, “Winter” will be seen through the lens of Giovanni Antonio Guido’s “Winter” violin concerto, written as part of his own Four Seasons concertos six or so years before Vivaldi’s, and Christopher Simpson’s 1660 “Winter” fantasy suite. “Summer” will be played alongside Bohemian music, reflecting the Vivaldi cycle’s noble Czech dedicatee, Václav Morzin. Four of the five main concerts are free to full-time students (including school kids from third to twelfth grades): audience building is a Tempesta priority.

There’s also a series of three programs involving smaller configurations of Tempesta players. Stone will give November solo evenings encompassing Bach, Silvius Leopold Weiss, Jacques Gallot, and Bernhard Joachim Hagen. In January and February, Roberts, Ngai, and Terry will present groups of Telemann unaccompanied solo fantasias (Terry’s selections, on viola da gamba, only resurfaced last year). In April, guests Jacob Perry (tenor) and William Simms (theorbo and guitar) will join Stone in arias and canzonettas by Monteverdi to mark the 450th anniversary of the composer’s birth. These intimate events include narration by the artists. One of the Monteverdi concerts even has a typical Tempesta touch: an optional add-on dinner with the performers. The company maintains a blog on its website to explain and contextualize its projects and asks for feedback on concertgoers’ experiences.

The Telemann recital presages for next season what Tempesta calls a “deep dive” exploration of this towering yet still underappreciated composer’s life and works on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of his death. Reclaiming Telemann will be a multimedia event with public panels, an academic conference, and two orchestral concerts in Oct. 2017. Telemann’s influences will be probed throughout the season. The “deep dives” allow the ensemble to consider in depth the signature aspects of a composer’s style — the special qualities of that musical “voice.” One future project will focus on flute and string works by the Silesian-born composer Johann Gottlieb Janitsch (1708-1763).

tempestacomediecdcoverThe only U.S.-based early-music entity to record for Chaconne, the early-music label of Britain’s important Chandos recording company, Tempesta has amassed an estimable and varied discography. Repertoire has included the more familiar Johann Sebastian Bach, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Handel — including a splendid performance of the last composer’s Nine German Arias with soprano Julianne Baird — and more arcane fare reflecting Tempesta’s adventurous spirit.

“We have a great relationship with Chandos — really wonderful people and kindred spirits,” said Roberts, who has served as director of early music at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania since 1986 and also teaches at Peabody. “They’re interested in artistic distinction and exploring and making available what isn’t yet out there. Nobody makes money from classical recording, unless you’re named Yo-Yo Ma, and we raise the funds for fees and recording costs through grants and contributions. Chandos handles the production and distribution. We’re very lucky, and it serves to raise the profile of the group.”

Stone is the soloist in the premiere recording of Weiss lute concertos. Roberts plays both recorder and traverso in eight flute sonatas by Neapolitan master Francesco Mancini, with Stone and Tempesta members Terry and Adam Pearl (keyboard) providing lively continuo.

Two multi-volume projects of live recordings reflect successful “deep dives”: three discs (with many “modern premiere” performances) from the works of Johann Friedrich Fasch and two volumes titled Comédie et Tragédie exploring the rhythmically rich and often surprisingly orchestrated suites written for the French stage during more than seven decades. Along with works by Marais, Lully, Charpentier, and Rameau, the fare includes piquant pieces by Leclair and Rebel that are increasingly present in the repertories of early-music groups worldwide.

Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City. He writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt and many other venues, and has done program essays for the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, the Royal Opera House, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.

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Brilliance Marks Esfahani’s Goldberg Variations

Iranian-born harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani continues his association with Deutsche Grammophon with Bach's Goldberg Variations. (Photo by Bernard Musil / DG)

Iranian-born harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani continues his association with Deutsche Grammophon with Bach’s Goldberg Variations. (Photo by Bernard Musil / DG)


J. S. Bach: Goldberg Variations
Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord
Deutsche Grammophon 289 479 5929

By Richard S. Ginell

Mahan Esfahani, the first harpsichordist to be signed by Deutsche Grammophon in a generation or two, is an unusual member of that limited species. His jaunty poses make him look a bit like an Iranian-American Stephen Colbert. His first CD for DG’s early-music-baroque-classical Archiv line last year made unprecedentedly strange bedfellows of the Bach family, Henryk Gorécki, and Steve Reich — and he made them fit.

goldberg-cover-400So with that in mind, it may have been surprising to see Esfahani follow up his imaginative debut with something as overdone as J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (198 listings on as of Sept. 2016). Although Esfahani’s take on this set of 30 variations on a plaintive aria doesn’t overflow with revelations, it does show off his brilliant technique — and as a result, there are some spectacular passages to be savored.

The pioneering 20th-century harpsichordist Wanda Landowska put the Goldbergs on the map, yet it was a pianist, Glenn Gould, who really punched it into the center of the Baroque repertoire, where it has remained for the last 60 years.  While it has become a much-trodden proving ground for established and emerging pianists — not to mention aspiring transcribers for other instruments — it still fits most comfortably as written onto a two-manual harpsichord, particularly in passages where, on a single keyboard, the hands cross over dangerously in each other’s way.

Esfahani observes all the repeats in the aria and variations, but his speeds are just fast enough so that the 78-minute performance doesn’t need more than one CD (most slower versions with all the repeats require two discs). There are long pauses after each variation until Variation 26, after which the next few follow each other almost immediately. In the opening statement of the aria, Esfahani deliberately omits much of the appoggiatura — mostly grace notes — the first time around, yet restores them on the second pass of the Aria at the end of the recording. Only in Variation 19 does Esfahani use the harpsichord’s lute stop, alternating between that and the normal stop on the repeats.

One questionable habit Esfahani indulges in during the arias is the “breaking of hands” — putting the bass hand down before the treble hand, even though they are supposed to be played simultaneously — a long-outmoded practice of Romantic-era pianists, like Paderewski, that disrupts the relaxed rhythm of the music here. He gets a bit bogged down in ornaments that distort the line in the repeats of Variation 13, and loses the thread of the thicket of introspective chromatic writing in Variation 25 — the so-called “Black Pearl” Adagio which, Esfahani whimsically writes, “seems to come from outer space.”

Nitpicking aside, most of the variations are rendered with lively, needle-sharp precision and in Variation 23, some welcome humor. As Esfahani’s profile rises, I imagine he will get a few more passes at the Goldbergs before long — and DG does him the rare favor of placing this on its regular vintage yellow label rather than the Archiv imprint.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.

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Bezuidenhout Continues Mozart Series

Kristian Bezuidenhout

Kristian Bezuidenhout performs Mozart concertos on fortepiano with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concertos K. 413, 414, 415
Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra; Gottfried von der Goltz, conductor
harmonia mundi HMC 902218

By Benjamin Dunham

CD REVIEW — Mozart composed the Piano Concertos Nos. 11, 12, and 13, K. 413-415, one after another (actually 12 first, then 11 and 13) in late 1782, a year after he moved from Salzburg to Vienna. In his book Mozart’s Concerto Form (Praeger, 1971), however, Denis Forman places their first movements in three distinct categories: galant, melodic, and symphonic. When they were announced as a set that January, Mozart promised, presumably for marketing considerations, that the concertos could be accompanied by as little as a string quartet. Although these works might be considered Mozart’s calling card for 1783 — one that, in Forman’s terms, suggests past, present, and future — he was not able to get them published until 1785.

bezuidenhout-cover-400The brilliant fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, a native of South Africa trained at the Eastman School of Music, has recorded these concertos with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra as part of a series he has been doing for harmonia mundi. These are vibrant interpretations with a full-blooded orchestral texture and plenty of forward motion, and the solos are characterized by the artist’s customary imagination in phrasing. The engineering presents a well-delineated sound stage throughout, and careful miking picks up the pianist’s playing-along in opening tuttis, a nice combination of intimacy and grandeur.

In K. 414 in A major, Bezuidenhout’s instrument, a Paul McNulty copy of an 1805 instrument by
Anton Walter & Sohn, is crisp and clear, but some listeners might prefer the warmer sound of Steven Lubin’s 1981 R. J. Regier Walter copy on his 1986 recording with the Mozartean Players. It isn’t just that Lubin’s instrument is less glassy; his playing seems to hint at the world of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. With Bezuidenhout, we are confronted with a brash Cherubino. His playing of the opening Allegro of K. 413 in F major is fleet and forceful, even a bit ferocious, as if Mozart had a bee in his bonnet when he wrote it. By comparison, in a 1984 recording with the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner, Bezuidenhout’s teacher, Malcolm Bilson, playing a 1977 Walter copy by Philip Belt, seems to be seeking out moments of elegance.

Kristian Bezuidenhout

Kristian Bezuidenhout  (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

With K. 415 in C major, Bezuidenhout’s recording comes into its own. Scored for an orchestra that includes trumpets and drums (surely Mozart knew that justice could not be done a quattro), the concerto’s opening Allegro is truly grand and symphonic. The Andante in F major has a heaven-sent, long-limbed theme that is developed to the nth degree. For me, the real pay-off is the concluding Rondeau: Allegro. Here, Mozart and Bezuidenhout’s playfulness find their match with many improvisatory readings of the written notes and teasing interpolations in the pauses — and there are two delicious interludes in the parallel minor that Mozart reused from his originally intended slow movement. After a final restatement of the rollicking opening theme, the movement ends quickly and quietly, not with a bang but a rumble. Wonderful.

Former EMAg editor Benjamin Dunham has reviewed recordings for The Washington Post and Musical America and currently serves as the classical music reviewer for The Sentinel in Marion, MA.

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The Eighteenth-Century Rhythm Riddle: What is the Quarter Note Quandary?

If you were to ask a modern musician what the quarter note means in Common Time the answer would be simple: “It lasts for one full beat, to be released at the beginning of the succeeding beat.” Ah, but eighteenth-century rhythm reading is not a simple “one-size-fits-all” affair. Just as spoken language has evolved over time, so has music notational language.  The notation has remained much the same; it is how the notation is read that has changed.  So, how is the quarter note quandary solved?  Gazing at the issue through an eighteenth-century lens will answer the riddle.



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Center Stage, October 2016: Musica Pacifica

center stage bar

EMA’s monthly featured member profile.

Musica Pacifica 1

Founded in 1990, Musica Pacifica has become widely recognized as one of America’s premier baroque ensembles, lauded for both “dazzling virtuosity” and “warm expressiveness.”  They have been described as “some of the finest baroque musicians in America” (American Record Guide) and “among the best in the world” (Alte Musik Aktuell). Based in the San Francisco Bay area, the artists perform with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and American Bach Soloists, as well as prominent early music ensembles worldwide. Musica Pacifica has performed on prestigious concert series throughout the U.S. Featured at the Berkeley Early Music Festival three times, their first appearance there was cited in Early Music (UK) as “perhaps the standout of the entire festival.” Their 2015 performance at the Boston Early Music Festival was reviewed as “sensational . . . astonishing . . . breath-taking throughout” by The Boston Musical Intelligencer. They have performed at festivals in Germany and Austria, and have been featured on German National Radio, Minnesota Public Radio, and National Public Radio’s “Performance Today” and “Harmonia.” Musica Pacifica’s nine CD releases on the Virgin Classics, Dorian, Solimar,  and Navona labels have won national and international awards.

Musica Pacifica’s current line-up is Judith Linsenberg (recorder), Elizabeth Blumenstock (violin), Josh Lee (viola da gamba), and Charles Sherman (harpsichord.)

How did Musica Pacifica come together?

We met back in 1990 through Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in the Bay Area. The group had a slightly different make-up back then, including recorder (myself — Judith Linsenberg), violin (Elizabeth Blumenstock), oboe (Gonzalo Ruiz), bassoon (Marilyn Boenau), cello (Sarah Freiburg), and harpsichord (John Butt), but most of us were either regular, or at least occasional, members of the orchestra. We were looking for outlets to play chamber music, to complement the orchestral work for PBO and to challenge ourselves, and so got together originally to play the virtuosic chamber concertos of Vivaldi and Telemann (and Fasch) that used that sort of large and diverse instrumentation. Over our 26 years of playing together, the personnel has changed a bit — nowadays, our core group is just 4 of us (recorder, violin and continuo), with varying guest artists (some of whom are very regular guest artists) — but Elizabeth and I were founding members and are still going!



Mainstage Concert, 2015 BEMF.

What is Musica Pacifica’s most memorable concert experience?

All the stars were lined up for us that night. Playing a Main Stage event at this festival was an honor for us, and we were excited to be there. We were playing our “Dancing in the Isles” program, one that we have been done for many years and with which we were extremely comfortable both as a group and individually. It was a joy to play with some of our colleagues from the east coast. The event was in Jordan Hall, possibly the finest chamber music hall in the the U.S. — it’s clear and resonant, and very easy to communicate on stage. Another attribute of that hall is that the audience is not far away, which intensifies their experience and allows the performer to feel their response. As this was BEMF, we had the best audience we could have hoped for: knowledgable, appreciative, and extremely enthusiastic. This show took place at 11 p.m., which lent a special mood — the audience who was there really wanted to be there, and apparently our joy and excitement were infectious.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned as an ensemble?

We’ve kept our ensemble going for 25 years, and in order to do this have had to learn how to get along with each other in what can sometimes be trying situations. This has occasionally been challenging — we are all passionate and energetic people with strong musical and personal convictions. We’ve learned to accommodate each others’ ideas as we work through musical issues in rehearsals and planning future programs. Touring, sometimes in less than ideal circumstances because of difficult travel and rehearsal schedules, can add to the stress. By now, we know each other very well, both personally and musically, and we’ve learned to be cognizant of each other’s foibles so we can give each other some slack when needed!

If Musica Pacifica was offered a surprise financial windfall, what project would you fund?

What a fun question! We have frequently heard, over the years, from audience members wishing we had CDs of our concert programs.  So, if we received a windfall, we would use it to create high-quality video recordings of some of our most visually appealing programs.  Our “Crossing the Channel” program, a collaboration with the estimable New York Baroque Dance Company, is beautiful to see and listen to. Our “Dancing in the Isles” program, featuring exuberant percussion and Celtic fiddling, also makes for happy viewing. A “state of the art” video would bring our performances to vivid life for many people all over the world who don’t have a chance to see us live, and encourage folks to bring us over to where they are!

Cover image from Musica Pacifica's 2016 release, Mi Palpita Il Cor: Baroque Passions.

Cover image from Musica Pacifica’s 2016 release, Mi Palpita Il Cor: Baroque Passions.

What is next on the schedule for Musica Pacifica?

We’re excited about the upcoming release of our ninth release, and tenth actual CD, on October 14, 2016 on the Navona label: Mi Palpita Il Cor; Baroque Passions, with the amazing French-Canadian soprano Dominique Labelle. The CD features vocal and instrumental pieces from the mid- and late-Baroque, including cantatas by Steffani, Handel and Rameau, covering a wide range of passion, from pleasure and joy to pain, anguish and fury — along with a charming Paris Quartet by Telemann and a virtuosic trio sonata by Sammartini.

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