Pro Musica Rara starting 29th year

Ensemble gets new face and new venue this season

Stage: theater, music, dance

October 09, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The impulse to recapture the past is a strong one. It drives such things as re-creations of Civil War battles, which give participants a sense of how the real thing must have looked, felt, sounded. And it explains a musical phenomenon known, for better or worse, as the "authenticity movement" -- an attempt to replicate the way music of earlier times was first played.

Like those modern-day Yankees and Rebels, the followers of this movement dig deep into the subject and re-learn how to do many things in order to make the time travel valid. They put aside modern instruments in favor of ones more faithful to the period; they adjust tempos, dynamics and phrasing according to the principles prevalent in that period.

Why bother going to all this trouble? You can easily find the answer by checking out Baltimore's long-valued period instrument ensemble, Pro Musica Rara (which translates "for rare music"). It begins its 29th season Sunday with an all-Beethoven program; a new artistic director, Allen Whear; and a new venue, Towson Presbyterian Church.

"I don't think it is necessary to make a big distinction between period instrument groups and modern instrument ones," Whear says. "The philosophy is the same -- to present really fun concerts that try to illuminate the music as well as possible."

The New York-based Whear, who succeeds Shirley Matthews in the Pro Musica post, has performed with the group often. He is also associate principal cellist of the highly regarded Toronto-based baroque orchestra called Tafelmusik.

For this opening program, he will be joined by two Pro Musica favorites: Edmund Battersby, who will play a replica of an 1830s Viennese fortepiano, and violinist Ivan Stefanovic of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

With the Archduke Trio, a cello sonata and the Waldstein Sonata, one of Beethoven's monumental additions to the keyboard literature, the program promises a substantive dose of the composer's genius and early performance practice.

"We want the music to be heard as radical and daring and fresh as it must have seemed when it was new," Whear says.

The startling effects inherent in Beethoven's works can be intensified by just the sound of period instruments and the application of period style (especially limited vibrato from strings). A lot of romantic gloss, added over many generations, can be stripped away in the process, leaving a more visceral aural palette. It's the same with other composers, from Bach on.

"Pro Music Rara's core repertoire remains 17th and 18th century," Whear says, "but in recent years, we have moved into romantic music -- Schumann and Mendelssohn. I, for one, feel very comfortable with this."

This season, the ensemble will stick with that core repertoire, but that still leaves plenty of room for discovery. On Nov. 16, a string quintet by Mozart will be juxtaposed with quintets by his contemporaries. On Jan. 18, the annual "SuperBach Sunday" offers several beloved Bach concertos. And on March 21, Bach's birthday will be celebrated not just with his music, but works written by others around the time he was born, providing a fresh context.

Such history lessons help define Pro Music Rara, but there's nothing coldly academic about them.

"We never use the dreaded `A' word -- authenticity," Whear says. "We just try to take a fresh look at music, to try to come to terms with the timbres, styles and articulations -- the language of the time. And we try to imagine the sound world of the composers.

"I compare it to taking a horse-drawn carriage ride in Central Park. You can take an air-conditioned limousine ride and get not a bump or a smell, but, for an aesthetic experience that takes you back to a different time, the carriage ride can't be beat. At Pro Musica Rare, we give up some so-called modern conveniences when we play, but that helps us look at the music afresh. Hopefully, that comes across to the audience. We are not just doing it for ourselves, but to share."

The organization is counting on finding more people to do that sharing with this season. Like most arts groups, Pro Musica Rara has had been struggling financially. That's one reason why the season is down from the usual five concerts to four, and why the venue is being switched to Towson Presbyterian Church from the Baltimore Museum of Art's auditorium (which had become too expensive to rent).

Despite money worries, Whear expects Pro Musica to continue on its distinctive path.

"We've always tried to interest professional musicians in getting involved with playing on period instruments, and we will still try to do that," he says. "We will also continue to invite luminaries to play with us, people we can learn from. And we've got a loyal core audience. We're getting by. I'm sure we can build and re-build. Twenty-nine years is a pretty good length. We've been around longer than most other early music groups in the country. And we're planning ahead to our 30th anniversary."

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 41.

Pro Musica Rara

Where: Towson Presbyterian Church, 400 W. Chesapeake Ave.

When 3:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets $28

Call: 410-728-2820

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