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November 7, 2011

Weekend review: Pro Musicia Rara, conductor Lee Mills, composer Jake Runestad

My Sunday afternoon musical outings included a delectable Pro Musica Rara program and a Peabody concert that showcased some very promising talent.

Pro Musica Rara, an organization that deserves much more support, put together a colorful selection of vocal and instrumental items from the personal collection of Jane Austen, supplemented by some items she and her set may well have encountered.

There's a lot to be said for a concert that puts aside weighty matters in favor of good old-fashioned entertainment, especially when the musicians are as engaging as they were on this occasion at Towson University's Fine Arts Center.

Pro Musica was fortunate to have guest artist Julianne Baird (pictured) back for this event; the soprano is a major artist who knows not just how to delivered historically informed performances of early music, but how to eliminate even the slightest trace of the academic while doing so.

Accompanied by Pro Musica's Eva Mengelkoch on the fortepiano, Baird started things in silvery-toned fashion with ...

an aria from Handel's "Susanna." The singer was likewise sweet of voice and tender of expression in "She Rose and Let Me In," partnered in this case by cellist and Pro Musica artistic director Allen Whear.

Throughout the afternoon, the three music-makers seemed to have a great time. Baird can make even the slightest of ditties sound substantive and charming, which she did here to notable effect in "The Irishman" and "The Sapling Oak Lost."

The singer also gamely shouted out the descriptive titles of the various sections that make up "The Battle of Prague," a case of pure shlock, 18th-century style, that generated considerable gusto from Mengelkoch, Whear and a guest percussionist.

On her own, Mengelkoch also delivered Beethoven's Variations of "Rule Britannia," which is pretty insignificant for Beethoven, but perfect for an afternoon re-creating Jane Austen's drawing room. In between the performances, the players recited music-related passages from the author's works, which added an extra degree of charm to the proceedings.

Earlier in the day, I stopped by Peabody to hear a concert led by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra-Peabody Conducting Fellow Lee Mills, who is a candidate for artist diploma at the conservatory (the event was "in partial fulfillment of the requirements" for that diploma). The opportunity to hear a work by Peabody alum Jake Runestad (pictured) on the program was another draw.

The orchestra, put together for the occasion, made an admirable showing. They responded energetically and, for the most part, smoothly to Mills throughout. He approached the restless Overture to Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" with a fine balance of propulsion and lyrical breadth.

I couldn't stay for all of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" at the close, but the first three movements emerged with an effective vibrancy. The third proved particularly rewarding, with some beautifully molded phrasing from the podium and in the stands (harpist Jordan Thomas added a good deal of sonic character here).

The highpoint of the concert for me was the piece by Runestad, "As Rain to the Sea," for soprano and orchestra, based on a poem by Carl Sandburg (I didn't think anyone under, um, a certain age read Sandburg anymore).

At the heart of the poem: "What is truth? ... How much do the wisest of the world's men know about where the massed human procession is going?" In the last line, the poet describes how "all things human rise from the mob and relapse and rise again as rain to the sea." Runestad responds to these lines with particular expressive power.

This is a big score with big ideas. I was struck by the composer's firm grasp of orchestration, from the most percussive, brassy outbursts to a highly imaginative use of delicate pizzicato at the close, which creates a wonderfully atmospheric fade-out full of subtle tensions.

When unleashed at full throttle, which is quite often in this score, the effect of all that instrumental force lined up against one soprano reminded me of David Del Tredici's "Alice" works -- except that Del Tredici uses amplified voice to help even the playing field. I wonder if that wouldn't be such a bad thing in "As Rain to the Sea," since few of the words could be deciphered in this performance.

Nonetheless, soloist Lisa Perry made quite an impression with the pure, gleaming timbre of her voice. Mills guided the orchestra through the eventful music steadily, bringing out the taut dissonances with considerable force and molding the calmer passages tellingly.



Posted by Tim Smith at 1:18 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Peabody Institute

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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 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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