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Pro Musica Rara wraps up 39th season with rarities

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

6:10 PM EDT, April 7, 2014

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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.