Pro Musica Rara offered its first season in Baltimore 40 years ago, when such terms as "early music," "period instruments" and "historically informed performance practice" didn't get bandied about much in ordinary conversation. Organizations devoted to those things did not dot the landscape.
"Early music was very much marginalized," says Pro Musica Rara artistic director Allen Whear. "It was a Birkenstock thing."
That image of offbeat folks in sandals grooving to viola da gambas or other exotic instruments from distant centuries was widespread. But it gave way to recognition of a major force in the classical music world. The "authenticity movement," as it came to be known, changed the way we hear and think about pre-19th-century music.
Pro Musica Rara, which offers its annual "SuperBach Sunday" concert this weekend at Towson University, has been doing its part to take the esoteric out of early music.
"It's really in the mainstream now," the New York-based Whear says.
Hallmarks of the authenticity movement include faster, more dance-like tempos and leaner textures (period instruments have a lighter sound). Another sonic change is reduced use of vibrato by string players, a big departure from standard practice.
Time was when early music groups had to fight a rap for playing out of tune, a pitfall related to the difficulties of mastering authentic instruments — bows and strings for a baroque violin or cello differ from modern versions; construction of wind and brass instruments differs, too.
But training has advanced greatly, leading to a larger pool of accomplished players, and prejudices about the early music scene have largely faded.
"I think a tipping point was Yo-Yo Ma making a recording [in 1999] playing a baroque cello," Whear says. "It was so beautiful. When the very highest level of professional musicians showed respect for [early music], it made a difference."
Over the years, more universities and conservatories have offered early music training. At the Peabody Institute, for example, there has been a Renaissance Ensemble for 27 years. The conservatory began offering a master's degree in early music in 2006, the same year a student ensemble, the Baltimore Baroque Band, was launched there.
"People in school have much easier access to early music," says Whear. "And I think the younger musicians today consider it as part of the whole process of learning, however they end up choosing to play in the end."
Whear chose to specialize in the baroque cello after graduate studies at New York's Juilliard School. He is associate principal cellist of the high-profile Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in Toronto and performs with other major early music groups around the world.
He started playing with Pro Musica Rara in 1989 and became artistic director in 2003.
"I wanted to expand it stylistically, to make more forays into late-Classical [roughly 1750 to 1820] and early-Romantic [mid-1800s] stuff," Whear says. "I wanted to introduce a few instruments and a few soloists that hadn't been featured. I think we've made improvements and done some pretty good things, but there's always room to grow."
During Whear's tenure, there has been a steady upgrading of quality in the ensemble, which has a core of longtime players, including Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members who enjoy switching from modern to period instruments.
The pre-Super Bowl SuperBach Sunday will be inflated by such popular Bach works as the Double Violin Concerto; Brandenburg Concerto No. 5; and the Cantata "Ich habe genug," with the exceptional soprano Ah Young Hong as soloist.
It has not been easy for Pro Musica Rara to stay in business for 40 years. Baltimore has not embraced early music as enthusiastically as in some other cities; attracting audiences and raising money remains a perennial challenge.
"I would definitely welcome more attendance at concerts," Whear says. "And it would be great to be able to program pieces and not have to consider whether we can afford a second viola."