Pro Musica Rara delivers colorful sampling of Handel arias with Julianne Baird

After less than a month, Pro Musica Rara is halfway through its 2013-14 season. So you'd better be paying attention or you might miss the other half, which would be a pity, since the early music group is in fine fettle these days. (The remaining concerts are in February and April.)

Three weeks ago in Towson University's intimate recital hall, Pro Musica artistic director and cellist Allen Whear was joined by fine violinist Cynthia Roberts, elegant harpsichordist and brilliant recorder player Paul Lennhouts. They had a good romp through a survey of German baroque; Telemann items emerged with extra flair that day.

On Sunday afternoon, Whear welcomed two instrumentalists -- Sara Nichols (traverse flute), Avi Stein (harpsichord) -- and soprano Julianne Baird for a mostly Handel program. Given how much opera and oratario was represented, I couldn't help but miss the richer sound of orchestral forces backing the vocal soloist, but the performances still proved persuasive and engaging.  

Baird is a noted, longtime baroque specialist whose long list of credits includes an extensive discography. At 60, her voice remains quite limpid, her technique pristine.

For some of the Handel opera arias in this concert I would have welcomed more tonal weight and coloristic variety, something more fully, well, operatic. But the singing was never short on musicality -- or embellishment. Baird spun out ornaments from the get-go in the exquisite "Lascia ch'io pianga," for example, and somehow added a whole bunch more in the da capo.

Two excerpts from "Ode for St. Cecilia's Day" delivered delectable rewards, as much for the soprano's refined phrasing as for the elegant and vivid obbligato flourishes from Nichols in "The Soft Complaining Flute," from Whear in "What Passion Cannot Music Raise and Quell."  

There was room on the program from some snappy Scarlatti sonatas delivered by Stein, a Bononcini cello sonata molded with an elegant touch by Whear and Stein, and more. Like the season-opener, this concert reaffirmed that, in its 39th year, Pro Music Rara still has a lot of fresh music-making to offer.

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