American concertgoers cock ears to the past and go for baroque

From the Broadway theater-type prices and the crush of the crowd one might expect a compelling modern musical event.But the object of the sellout this week at St. Paul's United Church here is none other than Johann Sebastian Bach and his centuries- old ensemble called Music of the Baroque. By intermission, the enthusiastic audience is clapping wildly and showering the stage with a chorus of "bravos."

The group, which has long received rave reviews from Chicago critics ("consistently first class" and "How did we ever live without it?") is one of a growing number around the country specializing entirely in baroque music and enjoying unprecedented popularity. Many listeners say it is the bold and regular rhythm and the easy-to-remember melodies of such 17th- and 18th-century composers as Bach, Vivaldi, Purcell, and Handel which most appeal.

Typical is Boston's seven-year-old Banchetto Musicale, which by popular demand has been moving each year into larger halls. This year's schedule of performances is a complete sellout, according to founder Martin Pearlman. Chicago's Music of the Baroque, started in the academic Hyde Park area of the city as a church choir with a few hundred subscribers, now draws 15,000 listeners a year to its subscriptions series held in four different parts of the city.In Manhattan, the New York Baroque Dance Company, founded in 1976, dances in costume exclusively to baroque music and is heading on tour to play before audiences in Louisville and Miami.

Many baroque enthusiasts like their music recorded as well as live. Indeed, much of the American revival of interest has its roots in recordings made in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s on authentic instruments. Art Shulman, director of stores for Laury's Records in the Chicago area, reports a "strong resurgence" in the sales of baroque music over the last five-to-seven years. One of the top sellers, he says, he been Pachelbel's Canon in D, which served as the background music in the movie "Ordinary People." The use of a baroque score for last year's Academy Award-winning film, "Kramer vs. Kramer" also has spurred sales.

"There is a solid audience for baroque music which is now measurable and marketable, albeit small, in the recording business," confirms Thomas Willis, former music critic for the Chicago Tribune and associate professor of music history and literature at Northwestern University here.

Many of the recent enthusiasts are neither scholars nor veteran concertgoers. The Ars Musica in Ann Arbor, Mich., for instance, draws its audience largely from the town itself rather than from the University of Michigan, says Richard Crawford, a professor of music history there whose wife plays harpsichord in the ensemble.

"Baroque sounds esoteric, but it's shown itself to have fairly broad audience appeal," says Professor Crawford. "Many people see it as a novelty -- they aren't exactly sure what's going on, but they know it's different and they like it."

One of the few issues that can spark a hot controversy among baroque devotees is whether the music is being played on authentic instruments by same number of musicians and singers as the composer intended. Some experts, such as University of Chicago music Prof. Robert Marshall, say that the rush by purists a decade ago to perform baroque music only in the most authentic context has evolved now into a situation where, given the obvious advantages in using modern instruments and larger groups, less-authentic ensembles are "equally acceptable."

But several of the baroque performing groups, such as Ars Musica and Banchetto Musicale, insist on authentic instruments alone. Musicians find that their skills are not always easily adapted to the early instruments and that ample practice time is a necessity. Early brass horns and trumpets, for instance, have no valves and musicians essentially must use their lip positions to hit the right notes.

Nonetheless, musicians concede, authentic instruments can make a night-and-day difference in sound.

Noting, for instance, that the harpsichord does not allow the same variation in the loud or soft level of sound that the piano does, Professor Crawford says that the harpischord player accordingly learns how to be more "subtle" in rhythmic effects. He suggests that the use of older instruments is shedding fresh light on the baroque period for just such reasons.

"It makes the music more alive and exciting," agrees Boston's Martin Pearlman.

But some baroque ensembles, such as Music of the Baroque, probably the largest and best supported (a $400,000 annual budget) in the country, have found the logistics of goin g original just too demanding.

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