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Great Hall series starts 30th season on the upbeat

Virginia Reinecke remembers fondly her first piano lessons from a nun in a Baltimore grade school. And her first piano, which her father bought from the Peabody Piano Company (it sent the wrong instrument at first, much to his annoyance). And, especially, "playing for company" many a time at her parents' house.

Fortunately, among that company one day was a cello teacher at the Peabody Conservatory, who recommended that the youngster should study there. Thanks to a scholarship, that's exactly what Reinecke did, first in the preparatory division, then the regular conservatory. And, thanks to an apparently unflappable spirit, she's still in the music-making business at the age of 83.

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In addition to a concert career that has taken her from China to Poland and another career as a teacher, the pianist has devoted considerable energy and imagination as artistic director of one of the Baltimore area's most appealing concert series -- Music in the Great Hall, which starts its 30th season this weekend.

"I can't believe it," Reinecke says. No wonder. Baltimore, like many a community, has seen various musical enterprises come and go over the decades. There is never an easy way to keep up the money, enthusiasm and toil needed to sustain a concert series. This one, as Reinecke puts it, has "had its ups and its valleys, down in the depths." But things seem decidedly upbeat today.

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With Eileen Twynham, Reinecke founded the series at the Tudor-style Maryvale Preparatory School in Brooklandville. It had a grandly scaled, wooden-paneled room with a stone fireplace and wonderful acoustics for chamber music, a room known as the Great Hall.

"I talked to a lot of people about helping with the series," Reinecke says. "Most of them said, 'It's a marvelous idea, but I can't get involved in all of that.' There were legal matters, all sorts of things to figure out. Somehow, we got through that and were able to put on four concerts that first season. They became so popular that we went to two performances of each concert after a few years."

But in 1985, midway through the season, the luck changed a bit.

"We would get 150 people for concerts, which was really more than the capacity," Reinecke says. "Gradually, the nuns didn't seem as enchanted with us being at Maryvale, and there were hints about fire regulations. That year, I received a phone call and was told that the fire marshals had paid a visit. They said they could allow only 49 seats. So it was goodbye, Maryvale."

Quickly switching gears and venues, the series finished the season at a church in Stevenson. For various reasons, that wasn't an ideal spot, nor was another church in Baltimore where the series relocated for a couple of years. In 1989, one more move was made, this time to the Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, which turned out to be a snug, lasting fit for Music in the Great Hall.

"They were delighted to have us," says Reinecke. "And they have the best Yamaha piano I've ever played."

No season is without its financial strain. Reinecke often hears a dreaded line from her board of directors: "We can't afford it." But the organization, with an annual budget generally under $20,000, is on solid footing and, while attendance has fluctuated over the years and could always use a boost, there's a loyal base of supporters. And there's no shortage of musicians, local and beyond, interested in appearing on the series.

The 30th anniversary gets under way tomorrow and Sunday with a "Great Hall Ensemble" -- oboist Valdimir Lande, clarinetist David Drosinos, violinist Peter Sirotin, violist Julius Wirth, cellist Lucasz Szyrner, pianist Joel Wizansky. They will present an imaginative mix of repertoire that includes an oboe quartet by Mozart, a piano trio by Fanny Mendelssohn, a clarinet-violin-trio by Bartok, and a solo cello work by Penderecki.

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Pianist Marian Hahn, violinist Lucy Stoltzman, violist Maria Lambros and cellist Lisa Lancaster will be featured Nov. 14 and 16 in piano quartets by Mozart and Brahms. Violinist Igor Yuzesovich, winner of the Yale Gordon Competition at Peabody, will give a recital Jan. 16 and 18. A baroque program will bring together Anne Marie Morgan on the viola da gamba and Barbara Weiss on the harpsichord along with soprano Laura Heimes.

Reinecke, who received Peabody's Distinguished Alumni Award in 1983, usually does piano duty for one or two programs each season. She will help close the season April 16 and 18, joining one of the hot ensembles on the international chamber season, the Borromeo String Quartet, for a performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet. The Borromeo players also will offer one of Beethoven's last string quartets.

That season finale will mark Reinecke's finale as artistic director of Music in the Great Hall. "I'm not as well as I was," she says. "Obviously, you slow down as you get older. Everything takes more time." Not that she couldn't be persuaded to make some music on the series again in the future. "Of course, I'll play if they ask me," she says.

For Reinecke and all those who have kept the organization going for three decades, a basic guiding principle has been at work: "The idea was to make a lot of wonderful music known to more people, and perform it in an intimate setting," she says. "I've always tried to make it enjoyable, like you're going to visit someone and you get music."

You might say Reinecke is still playing for company. And you're all invited.


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