As cellist Allen Whear pointed out during his typically droll welcome to the audience Sunday afternoon at Towson University's Center for the Arts, there are two big 40th anniversary seasons this year: "Saturday Night Live" and Pro Musica Rara.
The latter's milestone, as Whear also noted, is all the more remarkable considering that the early music movement -- playing period instruments, attempting to follow historic performance practices -- had barely reached this country when Pro Musica Rara was founded.
There are good reasons to celebrate the organization's vanguard status, its survival and, especially, the level of technical quality and artistic flair that have been the norm since Whear took the helm several years ago. More funding and bigger audiences would enable Pro Musica to experience welcome growth, but there is a lot to savor as things stand.
For one thing, Whear is an inventive programmer, as the season-opener reiterated. The all-Italian lineup was drawn lagely from works that featured the lute or baroque guitar. Whear also has a good track record for bringing in fine guest artists, and that was evident here.
Richard Stone, a Peabody Conservatory faculty member and co-director of the top-notch Tempesta di Mare ensemble in Philadelphia, gave an elegant, subtly shaped account of pieces for archlute by Giovanni Zamboni (and couldn't resist an ice skating rink reference during pre-performance remarks).
Stone also offered stylish flourishes in colorful works from the early baroque by Marco Uccellini and Biagio Marini, joined by Pro Musica members.
Vivaldi's D major Concerto, most commonly heard these days with guitar, gave Stone an opportunity to demonstrate some wonderfully florid embellishments on the subtle archlute. But having only two violins (Cynthia Roberts and Ivan Stefanovic) and cello (Whear) as an ensemble limited the concerto's sonic palette.
Stone switched to guitar and very much a supporting role in an amiable quintet by Boccerhini (originally scored for piano and strings). Roberts, Whear, violist Sharon Pineo Myer and a particularly dynamic Stefanovic joined Stone to bring out the music's color and rhythmic snap.
Whear's eloquent delivery of the adagio from a Boccerhini cello concerto rounded out the engaging program.