For this professor, baroque music rocks

Gwyn Roberts

Roberts on the recorder at a recent Tempesta di Mare concert at St. Mark's Church in Center City.

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

As Penn’s director of early music, Gwyn Roberts helps students open their ears and minds to the possibilities of baroque music. When Roberts puts on her other hat—as co-artistic director, flutist and recorder player with the baroque music group, Tempesta di Mare—she gets the chance to share her expressive vision with the general public.

Along with 14 to 18 fellow performers, depending on the program, Roberts injects baroque music with the expression and passion that it demands. “If you think about baroque art or baroque architecture, there’s nothing sterile about it,” said Roberts. “[Baroque music] is intended to excite the audience.”

But many people may feel disconnected from baroque music, as there are some interpretations that seem exciting only because they are played quickly. “What’s written down is not exactly what you play,” said Roberts. “Modern musicians read this stuff [and] haven’t known the secret language so much.”

Roberts emphasized that the Tempesta members want to inject drama and color into the genre. “Ultimately, what we really are about is being a really hot band,” she said.

Roberts and her husband Richard Stone, who is her fellow Tempesta co-artistic director, want to keep admission to performances free to attract new fans. “The audience for live classical music is getting older and older and smaller,” said Roberts, “and it’s not that we don’t value having older generations in the audience, but you can’t just have that. In order for this art to continue to have a life, you need to continue to renew the audience. … A lot of the barriers to young people going out to concerts has been this spiraling ticket [price].”

So, Roberts and Stone have modeled their group after successful public radio and TV stations, which boast free admission and encourage those who value the product to support it financially. “The program is the outreach. I don’t care if there’s a portion of the audience that’s not donating,” said Roberts. “I’d much rather have 450 people in the audience.”

Tempesta’s Oct. 4 performance of “Murder Most Foul,” a collection of four baroque pieces about violence and chaos, held at St. Mark’s Church, drew nearly 450 patrons.

World-renowned soprano Christine Goerke – a friend of Stone’s -- was so eager to sing Handel’s cantata, “Agrippina condotta a morire” and Louis-Nicholas Clérambault’s “Médée” with the group that she traveled to Philadelphia for Tempesta’s night performance after singing in New York earlier that day.

“You can’t have a shrinking violet singing [‘Agrippina’ and ‘Médée’],” said Roberts. “We just couldn’t think of anyone we’d rather have than Christine. … She really took to this. [She liked] the way that the group works and the will to make it better.”

Roberts and Stone came up with the name of their group after a 1996 recording session. They began touring as an ensemble, recorded again in June of 2002 and became an official nonprofit organization last year. Now, Tempesta di Mare is the ensemble in residence at St. Mark’s Church.

Roberts has been at Penn since 1986, and said that her work at the University meshes well with her work in Tempesta di Mare. In both outlets, she is working to eliminate the impression that baroque music is “rinky-dink or sterile or boring. … That’s really what I’ve always liked about this stuff—my own brain and my own inner powers were essential to it working well.”

Tempesta di Mare performs selections from Handel on Oct. 19 in the Rare Book Room of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. See “What’s On.” For more information on Tempestra di Mare’s upcoming performances, visit their website at www.tempestadimare.org.

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Originally published on October 16, 2003