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Tim Smith  Baltimore Sun  October 16, 2016

Pro Musica Rara opened its 42nd season Sunday afternoon with a program tilted toward Haydn -- always a welcome tilt -- and spiced by the cool instrument called a baryton.

That instrument has one set of strings in front for bowing and another on the back to vibrate sympathetically with the first (and also to be used by plucking). The baryton went out of favor by the start of the 19th century, but enjoyed enough attention to generate a substantial repertoire.

Haydn generated much of that repertoire, tailoring it to his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, a devoted baryton player. Pro Musica dug up one of those Haydn pieces, along with one by Tomasini, who likewise benefited from Esterhazy's patronage.

Handling the baryton for this concert at the Churches of the Nativity and Holy Comforter was Kenneth Slowik, an eminent musician and scholar who runs the chamber music program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and is a founding member of the Smithsonian Chamber Players.

Slowik demonstrated keen technical skills and expressive felicity, especially in Tomasini's vividly colored E minor Divertimento, enjoying lively interplay with violinist Cynthia Roberts and cellist Allen Whear.

The versatile Slowik also fulfilled the program's keyboard needs seated at the fortepiano.

His articulation was cloudy in the opening work, a trio by Pleyel, but grew steadily more assured. Slowik reached an impressive sparkle in Haydn's popular "Gypsy" Trio at the concert's close, deftly matched by his colleagues.

A cello sonata by Boccherini, delivered in elegant form by Whear and Slowik, provided another highlight of the afternoon.


Before heading to Shriver Hall, I sampled a good portion of Pro Musica Rara's program in its new digs at the tucked-away Maryvale School. The acoustics in the modest-sized theater of the Humanities Hall are on the dry side, but effective. Cellist and artistic director Allen Whear devised the program around the theme of Restoration England, focusing a good deal on Purcell. Several of that composer's vocal works provided a perfect vehicle for countertenor Ryland Angel, who offered finely focused tone, impeccable diction and natural phrasing. Angel's delivery of the familiar "Music for a While" proved especially satisfying. In excerpts from "The Fairy Queen," the singer had fun shifting into baritonal range for a time. A classy artist. In addition to the ever-expressive Whear, the fine instrumentalists for the afternoon were violinist Cynthia Roberts, who did particularly elegant work in music by Nicola Matteis; and harpsichordist Dongsok Shin, who played a Purcell suite in stylish fashion. Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun



Sunday afternoon found me at Towson University's Center for the Arts, where Pro Musica Rara was in a fighting mood.

Artistic director and cellist Allen Whear put together a program that took note of the Battle of Baltimore/"Star-Spangled Banner" bicentennial. In addition to assorted "battle pieces" from the turn of the 19th century, there was room for the "Anacreontic Song" that provided the tune for our national anthem, as well as an alternate setting of Francis Scott Key's celebrated poem.

In terms of musical quality, much of the descriptive material showcased here (Francois Devienne's "The Battle of Gemappe," Benjamin Carr's "The Siege of Tripoli," et al.) is not exactly top-drawer, with all that tonic-dominant alternation. But it was fun to hear the sort of stuff that once delighted listeners with atmospheric sounds of troops advancing, retreating, triumphing.

Whear, violinist Cynthia Roberts and fortepianist Eva Mengelkoch delivered those pieces with a good deal of character.

Soprano Julianne Baird made a welcome return visit to Pro Musica Rara for the occasion, reprising some of the items from her 2011 concert with the ensemble.

If her diction was sometimes fuzzy, Baird's silvery voice and instantly communicative styling proved as winning as ever. Highlights include a hearty version of "The Anacreontic Song" and James Hewitt's soft-edged version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

My favorite moment on Sunday was the soprano's poignant phrasing in Alexander Reinagle's "I Have a Silent Sorrow Here," an endearing example of early American song.



Pro Musica Rara opens 40th season with plucky Italian program

As cellist Allen Whear pointed out during his typically droll welcome to the audience Sunday afternoon at Towson University's Center for the Arts, there are two big 40th anniversary seasons this year: "Saturday Night Live" and Pro Musica Rara.

The latter's milestone, as Whear also noted, is all the more remarkable considering that the early music movement -- playing period instruments, attempting to follow historic performance practices -- had barely reached this country when Pro Musica Rara was founded.

There are good reasons to celebrate the organization's vanguard status, its survival and, especially, the level of technical quality and artistic flair that have been the norm since Whear took the helm several years ago. More funding and bigger audiences would enable Pro Musica to experience welcome growth, but there is a lot to savor as things stand.

For one thing, Whear is an inventive programmer, as the season-opener reiterated. The all-Italian lineup was drawn lagely from works that featured the lute or baroque guitar. Whear also has a good track record for bringing in fine guest artists, and that was evident here.

Richard Stone, a Peabody Conservatory faculty member and co-director of the top-notch Tempesta di Mare ensemble in Philadelphia, gave an elegant, subtly shaped account of pieces for archlute by Giovanni Zamboni (and couldn't resist an ice skating rink reference during pre-performance remarks).

Stone also offered stylish flourishes in colorful works from the early baroque by Marco Uccellini and Biagio Marini, joined by Pro Musica members.

Vivaldi's D major Concerto, most commonly heard these days with guitar, gave Stone an opportunity to demonstrate some wonderfully florid embellishments on the subtle archlute. But having only two violins (Cynthia Roberts and Ivan Stefanovic) and cello (Whear) as an ensemble limited the concerto's sonic palette.

Stone switched to guitar and very much a supporting role in an amiable quintet by Boccerhini (originally scored for piano and strings). Roberts, Whear, violist Sharon Pineo Myer and a particularly dynamic Stefanovic joined Stone to bring out the music's color and rhythmic snap.

Whear's eloquent delivery of the adagio from a Boccerhini cello concerto rounded out the engaging program.

p.s. I couldn't find a video clip of Stone playing an archlute, let alone performing Italian repertoire, but I thought you'd enjoy this clip of Bach on the baroque lute.



Emanuel Aloys Forster (Josef Eduard Teltscher, 1820 / April 7, 2014)Pro Musica Rara, one of the unsung heroes of Baltimore's performing arts scene, will celebrate its 40th anniversary next season.  That's remarkable on a whole lot of levels, starting with the fact that there weren't a lot people anywhere in the music world paying much attention to original instruments and historical informed performance practice four decades ago.  It's still not a field that attracts across-the-board interest among classical music fans. Pro Musica doesn't always draw a crowd, but the organization has managed to hang on and, more importantly, to make artistic strides.  What I encountered when I arrived in Baltimore 14 years ago is nothing like the Pro Musica Rara of today. Technical standards are now routinely respectable, often much more. And programming just keeps getting more and more intriguing.

Case in point: The 39th season finale, held Sunday afternoon at Towson University's Center for the Arts. The concert focused mostly on piano trios -- I should say fortepiano trios. The keyboard instrument on hand was a rich-sounding fortepiano crafted by R. J. Regier of Maine, inspired by those of Anton Walter from late-18th-, early-19th-century Vienna.
There was a single standard piece on the bill, Mozart's B-flat Trio, K. 502. It was delivered with a good deal of elegance by violinist Cynthia Roberts; cellist (and Pro Musica Rara artistic director) Allen Whear; and, especially, fortepianist Christoph Hammer, whose beautifully shaded phrasing in the Larghetto hit the spot.
In one of the way-off-the-beaten-path items, an amiable violin sonata by Johann Franz Xaver Sterkel, Hammer likewise offered a great demonstration of the fortepiano's expressive possibilities, and his own, bringing out a touch of wit amid the filigree. Roberts delivered the violin part nicely.
She and Whear encountered some intonation slippage during the afternoon, but phrasing was invariably dynamic, including in two other rarities on the program -- the E-flat Trio by Emanuel Aloys Forster, which revealed considerable melodic charm and developmental flair (Hammer's colorful playing again stood out); and a promising Allegro in B-flat by a 15-year-old Schubert.
The final work on the concert, an E-flat Trio by Hummel (E-flat and B-flat provided harmonic foundation for the entire afternoon) also qualified as non-mainstream. I suspect it enjoyed a dynamic performance, but I had to slip out beforehand in order to catch another concert.   




Tim Smith's picks for standouts in Baltimore theater, classical music 2013

An intriguing look at connections between Bach and Frederick the Great culminated with Bach's complex "Musical Offering," based on a theme attributed to the monarch. Cellist Allen Whear, the ensemble's artistic director, provided exemplary commentary on the music; he and his colleagues communicated its contrapuntal richness warmly.  Read More.



Pro Musica Rara delivers colorful sampling of Handel arias with Julianne Baird

Soprano Julianne Baird (Joanne Rile Artists Management / November 4, 2013)After less than a month, Pro Musica Rara is halfway through its 2013-14 season. So you'd better be paying attention or you might miss the other half, which would be a pity, since the early music group is in fine fettle these days. (The remaining concerts are in February and April.)

Three weeks ago in Towson University's intimate recital hall, Pro Musica artistic director and cellist Allen Whear was joined by fine violinist Cynthia Roberts, elegant harpsichordist and brilliant recorder player Paul Lennhouts. They had a good romp through a survey of German baroque; Telemann items emerged with extra flair that day.

On Sunday afternoon, Whear welcomed two instrumentalists -- Sara Nichols (traverse flute), Avi Stein (harpsichord) -- and soprano Julianne Baird for a mostly Handel program. Given how much opera and oratario was represented, I couldn't help but miss the richer sound of orchestral forces backing the vocal soloist, but the performances still proved persuasive and engaging.  

Baird is a noted, longtime baroque specialist whose long list of credits includes an extensive discography. At 60, her voice remains quite limpid, her technique pristine.  For some of the Handel opera arias in this concert I would have welcomed more tonal weight and coloristic variety, something more fully, well, operatic. But the singing was never short on musicality -- or embellishment. Baird spun out ornaments from the get-go in the exquisite "Lascia ch'io pianga," for example, and somehow added a whole bunch more in the da capo.

Two excerpts from "Ode for St. Cecilia's Day" delivered delectable rewards, as much for the soprano's refined phrasing as for the elegant and vivid obbligato flourishes from Nichols in "The Soft Complaining Flute," from Whear in "What Passion Cannot Music Raise and Quell."   

There was room on the program from some snappy Scarlatti sonatas delivered by Stein, a Bononcini cello sonata molded with an elegant touch by Whear and Stein, and more. Like the season-opener, this concert reaffirmed that, in its 39th year, Pro Music Rara still has a lot of fresh music-making to offer.  Read more.



Belated report on Pro Musica Rara's SuperBach Sunday

Pro Musica Rara had a great quarter-Bach for its concert on Super Bowl Sunday -- Johann Sebastian.  The early music/period instrument group has an annual tradition of presenting a wintry program scheduled around or, as it turned out this time, exactly on the day of the biggest football game of the year.  Billed as SuperBach Sunday, the concert typically has a unifying theme. This one, which drew a good-sized audience to Towson University's Center for the Arts, found a particularly interesting hook.

It centered on the court of Frederick the Great and featured one of Bach's monumental exercises in contrapuntal ingenuity, "The Musical Offering," based on a slithery theme supposedly devised by the king himself.

Hard to believe that the revered monarch who could come up with such a harmonically challenging melodic line was the same guy who wrote the mundane march played on the first half of Sunday's concert. I guess even supreme rulers have their off days.

Still, it was fun hearing that ditty and the more substantive and elegant Flute Sonata No. 9, not to mention the fine Flute Quartet No. 1 by Quantz, one of Frederick's favored composers.  The Quantz work, in particular, inspired a smooth, colorful performance from flutist Sara Nichols, violinist Greg Mulligan, violist Sharon Pineo Meyer, harpsichordist Dongsok Shin and cellist and Pro Musica artistic director Allen Whear.

But the main event, in terms of music and music-making, came in the second half as those five players, plus violinist Ivan Stefanovic, offered the "Offering."  It's a long, complex work made up of more than as dozen individual components, so Whear sensibly provided introductory remarks to each, accompanied by quick demonstrations of things to listen out for. I often lose patience with chitchat during concerts, but Whear kept his remarks brief, enlightening and spiced with a wit drier than the driest vermouth.

A few frayed edges aside, the playing was quite nimble and expressive, with many a telling detail, such as Nichols' downright sensual phrasing at the start of the "Canon a 4."  She, Stefanovic, Whear and Shin did shining work in the darkly beautiful Trio Sonata that, as Whear pointed out, demonstrated that Bach could write as well for the heart as for the mind, all the while extracting still more mileage out of the royal theme.  And all six musicians rose to the challenge of the concluding Ricercar, tapping into the score's almost spiritual immersion into the intricacies of fugal thought. 



Pro Musica Rara's season-opener features Scottish songs arranged by Beethoven

Pro Musica Rara's 38th season opened Sunday afternoon with a gem of a program and stylish music-making to go with it.  Folk songs from Scotland, arranged by Beethoven, had a prominent spot in the concert. These items provide a fascinating glimpse into a little known side of Beethoven, who arranged a great number of songs from Scotland, Wales and Ireland (on commission) in between penning some of his most famous and important works.  It may be tempting to dismiss these songs as inconsequential, but that would be a mistake. The composer took the job of arranger seriously, honoring the folk melodies fully and fashioning vivid accompaniment for piano, violin and cello.  The quality and character of Beethoven's Scottish Songs emerged engagingly in the Pro Musica performance at Towson University's Center for the Arts.

British-born tenor Rufus Muller brought considerable elegance of phrase to the material, his voice growing warmer and sweeter as the afternoon progressed.  His account of "Sunset" and "Faithfu' Johny" proved especially eloquent, and he also had no trouble uncorking the jaunty spirits of such numbers as "The Shepherd's Song" and "Sally in Our Alley" (which he embellished delectably).  Violinist Cynthia Roberts, cellist Allen Whear and fortepianist Christoph Hammer backed Muller with playing of admirable nuance and color. The distinctive tonal palette of the period instruments added greatly to the experience.

On their own, the three players also did impress[ive] work in Beethoven's C minor Trio (Op. 1, No. 3), tapping into the music's drama and lyricism. The soft ending was articulated with particular sensitivity.  There was room, too, for instrumental arrangements of folk songs that found a place in Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy," and Geminiani's baroque treatment of "Lady Bothwel's Lament."  A group of Haydn's English songs opened the concert. Muller encountered some uneven patches here, but his shaping of "She Never Told Her Love" was quite stirring, as was Hammer's sensitive keyboard work -- the pianist's playing was not always spotless Sunday, but it had terrific dynamic and rhythmic nuances all afternoon.

A mastery of his instrument and repertoire that any pianist in the world might envy.  Washington Post
Whear played the cleverly evocative cello lines with flair, elegantly supported by harpsichordist Dongsok Shin.  The Baltimore Sun
Roberts’ expressive interpretation brought the work’s inner beauty and outer brilliance.  Cleveland Plain Dealer
Poet of the fortepiano.  La Nazione, Florence.
His tonal range on the piano, phrasing and poetic insight were of extraordinary quality.  The Pretoria News
Polished, lovely tone of tenor Aaron Sheehan---Washington Post
The indispensable early music tenor, Aaron Sheehan---American Record Guide
…the terrific soprano Julianne Baird, one of the finest vocal artists specializing in early music. Baltimore Sun
Julianne Baird is a vocal phenomenon. . . a rare and wondrous voice guided by an extraordinary musical intelligence.  Fanfare shining purity of tone and seamless serenity.  Miami Herald
Whear played the cleverly evocative cello lines with flair.  The Baltimore Sun
Catherine Turocy still gives one of the most moving performances in dance today.  The Washington Star
The off-the-grid chic factor made the concert one of the season’s irresistable events. A celebratory sense of discovery. Meticulously prepared.  Philadelphia Inquirer
Slowik's flowing, intense, and heartfelt performance is its own reward.  BBC Music [London]
Cynthia Roberts was the fiery and gleaming soloist, full of bite and speedy flair.  Cleveland Plain Dealer
An interpretation that was powerful and filled with emotion...a stunning listening experience.  Leipziger Volkszeitung.  Her artistry is formidable… technically brilliant and poetically distinctive.  Early Music America



On Pro Musica Rara, Edgar Allan Poe and clever programming

Pro Musica Rara hasn't just become a much more consistent ensemble in recent years. It's become more fun, too.

For its 35th season-opener, the period instrument ensemble offered a novel salute to the bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe that included "scary" baroque music and the premiere of a piece devised by cellist and Pro Musica artistic director Allen Whear to accompany a recitation of Poe's chilling story, "The Cask of Amontillado."

On Sunday, while Poe fans were giving the author a proper funeral in Baltimore -- 160 years after his first, poorly attended one -- there was a good turnout for this concert at Towson University's Center for the Arts. I could only stay for the first half (I had a play to review in Columbia that evening), but it proved quite filling.

How often do you get a chance to hear Marin Marais' Le Tableau de l'operation de la taille? This is the composer's cut-by-cut depiction of gall stone surgery, ca. 1700, without, of course, any anesthesia -- and performed, as Whear pointed out in his engaging program notes, on original instruments (yikes). WBJC program director Jonathan Palvesky recited in French the brief descriptions that go with the piece -- "silk restraints for the arms and legs," "introduction of the forceps," and the like -- as Whear played the cleverly evocative cello lines with flair, elegantly supported by harpsichordist Dongsok Shin.

There was a piece by Jean-Marie Leclair nicknamed Le Tombeau, which had a grave beauty that made it ideal for the occasion (so did the fact that the composer was murdered and his killer never brought to justice). Violinist Judson Griffin joined Whear and Shin for an expressive performance. The three also collaborated on a remarkable chaconne by Antonio Bertali to start the concert in dynamic form.

Seeing how Pro Musica Rara acknowledged Poe made me think about other ways the Baltimore music world could have done so. We should have heard some of the compositions inspired by the master of the macabre. What a great hook the Poe bicentennial would have made for, say, programming Rachmaninoff's "The Bells." It's a marvelous work, and one I've never had an opportunity to hear live. I think it would have been an ideal project for the Baltimore Symphony and Baltimore Choral Arts Society.

There's also Florent Schmitt's orchestra piece "The Haunted Palace." And wouldn't it be cool to hear even a few snippets from Debussy's unfinished opera, "The Fall of the House of Usher"? Oh well, maybe when the next Poe anniversary comes around. (UPDATE: I overlooked the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, which deserves a shout out for programming Andre Caplet's Contes fantastique, based on "The Masque of the Red Death", in November.) Meanwhile, here's a sampling of Rachmaninoff's "The Bells":


Pro Musica Rara scores touchdown

"SuperBach Sunday," the annual presentation by Pro Musica Rara, provided more than pre-Super Bowl distraction. The organization's artistic director, cellist Allen Whear, put together a dynamic assortment of baroque fare and a stylish assemblage of musicians to perform it at Towson University's Center for the Arts.

Bach was represented by the brief, colorful Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 75, leaving the rest of the concert divided between Handel and Purcell. A suite from the latter's The Fairy Queen was a high point, both for Purcell's subtle genius and the deft work of the ensemble and soprano Ann Monoyios. She shaped "O let me weep" with a pure tone and unforced expressiveness, articulating the sighing phrases with particular beauty. The instrumentalists meshed admirably in the dance movements, handling such things as the decrescendo at the end of the Monkey's Dance with real charm. Sara Nichols produced gentle pastel tones on the transverse flute; John Thiessen negotiated the trumpet lines, always tricky on a period instrument, quite gracefully.

There was similarly fine music-making throughout the afternoon. Excerpts from Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, for example, were performed with a poetic touch, inspiring some eloquent phrasing by Monoyios, Nichols and Whear. The soprano's ornamentation of the same composer's "Let the bright Seraphim" from Samson was another plus; Thiessen had the trumpet part in that aria doing a kind of singing, too. Handel's Concerto Grosso, Op. 3, No. 3, received a vivid account; the fugal finale emerged with quite an effective bite.

For the record, the other performers on Sunday were violinists Cynthia Roberts, Greg Mulligan and Ivan Stefanovic; violist Sharon Pineo Myer; and harpsichordist Amy Rosser.

The concert provided yet another reminder of how nicely Pro Music Rara has developed in the past several years with Whear at the helm. But, as a fundraising plea at intermission drove home, the organization could use more support as it heads for its 35th anniversary next season.