Monday, March 9, 2015

Mannheim Rocket lifts off

Few American cities are as historically informed as Richmond. For years it has seemed that everything that happened here could be traced back to some event or personality of the early national period or the Civil War. Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis live on, and not just in tourist brochures.

Historically informed performance – playing pre-romantic music with the instrumentation and techniques of its times – has had a less stellar or consistent history in these parts.

University series presenting tourist artists have brought some period-instruments bands and early music vocal ensembles to town, but fewer now than 10 or 15 years ago. Summer concerts of early choral music with period-instruments accompaniment were staged for years at Centenary United Methodist Church, but that series lapsed into extended hiatus. In recent years, live performances on period instruments have been limited to the mid-winter baroque concerts of the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia and recitals on historically modeled organs.

Other than organists and some wind players, few local musicians playing modern instruments have demonstrated much interest, or competence, in adopting the performance techniques or styles of the baroque and classical periods.

Richard Spece, a clarinetist and conductor who settled in Richmond two years ago, makes a bid to raise Richmond’s interest in period-instruments, historical-style performance with Mannheim Rocket, a classical orchestra that will present its inaugural concert on March 13.

The ensemble will play Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major in one of the city’s most historic spaces, Monumental Church, Robert Mills’ Greek revival masterpiece, built as a memorial to the victims of the great Richmond Theater fire of 1811. The church, completed in 1814, is now surrounded by Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical campus in the Court End section of downtown Richmond.

“As we were planning our inaugural concert,” Space says, “a friend suggested Monumental Church as a venue with the historical cachet that would complement what we’re setting out to do with this orchestra.”

The musical and architectural vintages are roughly equivalent – the Mozart and Beethoven symphonies predate Monumental Church by about 20 years, but would have been considered contemporary, even cutting-edge, music in the cultural climate of the early national period. And the sound of the gut-string fiddles, narrow-bore woodwinds and valveless horns and trumpets played by the musicians of Mannheim Rocket would have been a familiar sound to listeners of the early 19th century.

The ensemble’s seemingly futuristic name is as historical as its musical mission. The Mannheim Rocket is a crescendo in which an arpeggiated melodic line quickly rises from the lowest to the highest instruments of an orchestra. It was among the innovations in orchestration spawned by composers of the Mannheim school of the mid-18th century. This effect animates much of the music of Mozart, Beethoven and other composers of the late-18th and early 19th centuries.

In organizing Mannheim Rocket, Spece recruited musicians from as far afield as Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Most have been colleagues he has performed with in period-instruments ensembles over the past 20 years, and many, he says, are playing this date gratis or for nominal fees, “out of love for the music and to promote historical performance.”

Mannheim Rocket’s tuning, A=430, is a quarter-tone flatter than that of a modern orchestra. The group is smaller than most classical-style orchestras, with three first violins, three seconds, two violas, two cellos and a double-bass, with pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, clarinets, French horns and trumpets, plus timpani.

The period instruments are tonally less brilliant and project less powerfully than their modern descendants, but their thinner, drier tone brings out details of articulation and quick figurations that can be obscured in the more resonant sonority of the modern orchestra.

“In a fairly intimate space like Monumental Church, I think these forces will pack plenty of punch,” Spece says.

After this week’s inaugural concert, Spece and associates will set out to raise funds and firm up organizational details to make Mannheim Rocket an ongoing endeavor. He hopes that the ensemble will establish a regular schedule of chamber-music concerts in fall and winter and orchestral programs in spring.

Mannheim Rocket’s inaugural program of Mozart and Beethoven begins at 8 p.m., with a pre-concert talk at 7:30 p.m., on March 13 at Monumental Church, 1224 E. Broad St. The Marshall University Fife and Drum Corps also will perform. Free parking is available in the Virginia Department of Transportation lot across Broad Street from the church. Tickets: $30; $25 for seniors and students. Details: (804) 491-6056;