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":