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Handel With Care

Tempesta di Mare at the UVM Recital Hall

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Lane Series director Jane Ambrose has something of a dream job. On a Sunday morning Vermont Public Radio broadcast, she heard a baroque ensemble that impressed and intrigued her; on Monday, she contacted the musicians’ agent and booked them for the eclectic Burlington concert series. Last Friday, Tempesta di Mare — named after an Antonio Vivaldi concerto meaning “storm at sea” — proved Ambrose’s instincts spot-on. The Philadelphia-based group delighted the almost-full house at the University of Vermont Recital Hall with a program entitled “Handel’s London.”

German-born baroque master George F. Handel (1685-1759) spent most of his career in England. Friday’s concert paired three Handel pieces with works by a trio of other composers from the early and mid-18th century. The common thread: All of the compositions were published in London, when music was developing into a commercial enterprise.

Tempesta di Mare’s program notes pointed out that music patronage in London was undergoing a rough-and-tumble transition during Handel’s lifetime. As royalty and religious institutions funded composers less consistently, music publishing and public concerts provided important new sources of income. For the expanding market of printed music, simple arrangements — small groups of instruments or a solo voice and instrument — proved especially popular. “It was a bit like buying a soundtrack album of a musical,” Tempesta’s notes explained. After an opera, for example, “the audience could relive its favorite moments from the show at home.”

To execute these intimate chamber works, Tempesta di Mare brought a quintet of players to Burlington from their touring roster. The lineup reset for each piece, ranging from two to five musicians on violin, recorder, lute, cello and harpsichord. The ensemble used “period” instruments, a mix of 18th-century originals and reproductions built to match those of that era. Tempesta played with polish and verve, beautifully demonstrating how period authenticity gave the music a subtle vibrance.

Structural differences and natural gut strings (instead of metal ones) give the baroque cello, for example, a mellower sound than its modern counterpart. The wood recorder has a softer, more ethereal tone than the assertive metal flute. Both the lute and harpsichord resonate with a delicate shimmer, much more refined than their bold contemporaries, the guitar and piano. The overall effect — especially in the Recital Hall’s warm acoustical environment — was to transport the audience back in time to a cozy 18th-century salon. Powdered wigs and breeches, fortunately, were not required.

The spirited, dance-like playing of cellist Rebecca Humphrey underpinned all six selections. In baroque music, the cello serves as a continuo instrument, providing both harmonic and rhythmic support, which Humphrey did with vigor. Especially captivating was her duet with lutenist Richard Stone for Rudolph Straube’s “Sonata in F” (1768). In the refined allegro movement, the lustrous, low notes of the cello gave off a bronze glow, while Stone brought forth a delicate, silvery gleam from the lute’s 24 (yes, 24!) strings. The duo reveled in the concluding menuetto’s playfulness.

Gwyn Roberts showed her considerable chops on recorder in William Babell’s “Sonata in G Minor” (1725). She highlighted the woodwind’s mournful melodic qualities in the opening adagio, and then fired off virtuosic runs during the subsequent allegro. She used the poco largo to show the recorder’s courtly side — heraldic, with a feminine edge — and then brought the sonata to a sprightly conclusion in the final allegro. Humphrey’s cello provided energetic counterpoint throughout the sonata, while Stone’s graceful lute supported the flashier actions of the lead instruments.

Handel is best known today for show stoppers such as the “Hallelujah” chorus from The Messiah. But two selections on Friday’s program demonstrated the brilliance of his softer side. “The Trio Sonata in B Minor” (1730) opened with an introspective melody in the recorder, with the cello and violin harmonizing serenely beneath the gentle tune. Roberts’ expressive technique illustrated how quietness and simplicity speak with great power. It made you want to lean forward, as if listening to a great actor whispering on stage.

Boisterousness and humor characterized the remaining two pieces: Arcangelo Corelli’s “Variations on La Follia” (1700) and highlights from Handel’s opera Rinaldo (1711). Throughout the program, Tempesta di Mare demonstrated an engaging camaraderie, signaling entrances and tempo changes with quick glances and nods. Eyes flashed and bodies swayed with clear joy in the music as they performed with precision and enthusiasm that Handel himself would have admired.

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