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October 13, 2009

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":

 

 

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:20 PM | | Comments (1)
        

Comments

The Baltimore Sym. has indeed performed "The Bells" before -- under David Zinman's baton, when he was music director. It was my first exposure to the work, and I remember thinking, it should be performed more often. Perhaps Marin Alsop will program it -- it would play to her strengths as a conductor.

Thanks for the comments. It's definitely overdue here. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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