Cleveland is blessed with a remarkable music scene. Members of the Cleveland Orchestra and faculty of institutions like the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Music Settlement abound in living room concerts and chamber settings unparalleled in most American cities.
Among these settings has emerged an ironically trend-setting ensemble that uses baroque music to underscore present-day social issues—juxtaposing past and present—with powerful performances, salient commentary, and partnerships with relevant nonprofits that address injustice.
Founded in 2012, Burning River Baroque is an ensemble that focuses on “bringing the drama, passion, and vitality of Baroque music to life for contemporary audiences.” Their work has been well-received in our musically-rich community, performing at venues ranging from Art House to Blank Canvas CLE to acoustically-ideal houses of worship.
Why choose music from the 17th and 18th centuries as a way to raise social consciousness and connection?
According to CIM alumna Dr. Paula Maust, the co-director and harpsichordist of Burning River Baroque, “When one looks at the broad span of human history—patterns of war, power struggles, and inequality have persisted for millennia.” Maust adds that ”the first step toward change is acknowledging the problems exist, challenging people to really think about issues and opening respectful dialogues.”
Instrumentalist and composer Malina Rauschenfels shares that when ancient stories are paired with current social issues, audience members will make their own connections about the prevalence of oppression throughout history. “It is our hope,” explains Rauschenfels, “that these connections can inspire future generations to change the course of history.”
As artistic co-directors, Maust and Rauschenfels are passionate about sharing music with all community members. With two series per season (one fall and one spring series), the week-long junket of practices and performances always includes outreach to local nonprofits, such as the Renee Jones Empowerment Center and Bard High School Early College, where Burning River Baroque hosts workshops that help community members connect historical music with their own lives.
Artistic portrayals allow people to think deeply about challenging issues without defaulting to habits and defense mechanisms that happen when listening to someone speak directly about an issue. This is particularly evident when the music is ancient yet reflects modern social issues.
“People from different backgrounds walk into a concert open and ready to listen. Then you give them a lens to look through as they experience this music that is ‘not current,’” says Rauschenfels. “The audience has an hour to do nothing except sit and think. This is the ideal time to create possible change, because you have potentially a wide variety of different opinions in the audience and each person has an hour to question their own views, by themselves.” Rauschenfels hopes that this “quiet contemplation” allows the listener to “shift to a place with a little more empathy toward an idea or group of people that one might never have considered before.”
For even the untrained listener, baroque music is impassioned and evocative, using somewhat obscure instruments like the harpsichord. The ensemble’s spring series, Witches: Revered and Reviled, explores the phenomenon of bullying and stigmatization of difference while also recognizing that witches were ironically seen as a source of healing at times of mental suffering.
Through exploration of the stories of Circe, the Witch of Endor, and the Furies, Burning River Baroque will engage audiences in thoughtful consideration of othering as a timeless and regrettable theme across human history. The program includes the premiere of a newly-commissioned work by Alexis Bacon. All performances include historical context, English translation, and thoughtful commentary to enrich the intertwining of instruments, voice, and social conscience while grappling with ancient narratives that highlight the impacts of denigration.
Intense? Yes. Relatable, beautiful? Absolutely. According to concert-goer Ben Malkevitch, a Burning River Baroque program is “a lesson in how to demystify older music.”