Pro Musicis finds audiences for young artists


The Rev. Eugene Merlet thinks a musician is a precious thing to waste.

"This talent [of making music] comes from God -- so it is there for a purpose and it must not be lost," says the Franciscan-Capuchin priest in a telephone interview from Paris where he heads the French office of the Pro Musicis Foundation.

Despite his religious affiliation, Father Merlet says Pro Musicis (the Latin means "For the Musician"), which he founded in 1965, is a non-denominational organization that tries to foster the careers of young musicians. It not only finds them public concerts (for which they get paid) but also creates opportunities for them to perform (without fee) in such places as prisons, old-age homes, hospitals and shelters for the homeless. The organization, the only one of its kind, has a board that includes Mstislav Rostropovich, Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim and Yehudi Menuhin.

In collaboration with another organization supportive of young artists, the Gordon Trust, Pro Musicis makes its first appearance in Baltimore this week through the talents of Jon Klibonoff. The young pianist will give a free public concert of music by Mozart, Brahms and Chopin Sunday afternoon at Loyola College. But he will also make three appearances on Friday -- at the Woodbourne School for emotionally handicapped children, at the Levindale Geriatric Center and at the Sheppard/Pratt Human Development Center.

Klibonoff's concerts -- and others like them in institutions and concert halls from London to Tokyo -- result from Father Merlet's experiences as a young priest.

"Since I had been a professional organist before I was ordained in 1953, my superior told me that my mission was to help the young musicians of the Paris Conservatory," the 65-year-old priest says. "The problem young artists faced was that the only way of getting ahead was to enter a prestigious international competition and -- if they were lucky -- get prize money and some dates. Since almost all the prizewinners I knew were eventually forgotten, I wanted to do something.

"But I also wanted to make the talents of these young musicians heard by people who never went to concerts -- old people, disabled people and people in prison. What I began doing by myself eventually became Pro Musicis."

Through annual auditions Pro Musicis selects two to four winners a year. There is no cash prize, simply a commitment to work with the young musician until he or she has performed in all the cities where the organization has established a presence. Pro Musicis pays travel expenses and arranges accommodations and -- if one is needed -- rents the best piano available. Past winners include such established figures as cellist Sharon Robinson, pianist Jeffrey Kahane and violist Kim Kashkashian.

"What we are looking for is not an artist who can win a huge competition," Father Merlet says. "We want an artist with music inside himself and the ability to communicate it to people who are hard to reach."

"I didn't know what to expect when I went to the Los Angeles Prison for Women," says Maria Bachman, a promising young violinist who has been giving concerts with Pro Musicis for two years. " 'How will I relate to them?' I wondered. As it turned out we had quite a bit in common -- what it was was our being able to share music. I began treating them just like any other audience that I wanted to please and when they saw that, they really opened up. We spoke to each other as equals."

"Any art -- and music especially -- reaches the heart of all people," Father Merlet says. "I have seen it many, many times. A few minutes of beauty can open a heart to what is still good in it."

The Klibonoff concert takes place at 3 p.m. in Loyola's McManus Theatre. Admission is free.

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