Concert series links past and present social issues

Burning River Baroque performing last March at The Wine Spot. [Photo Credit: Luis Gomez]

With the Cleveland Orchestra and Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) down the hill, Cleveland Heights is blessed with a strong musical tradition. Living room concerts and chamber settings abound with a frequency 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 links to relevant nonprofits that address injustice. Heights-based Burning River Baroque was founded in 2012 with the goal of “bringing the drama, passion and vitality of Baroque music to life for contemporary audiences." The ensemble’s work has been well-received in our musically rich community. St. Alban's Episcopal Church has become its unofficial home, hosting several concerts a year since the ensemble's launch.

Why choose music from the 1600s as a way to raise social consciousness and connection? According to CIM alumna Paula Maust, the general manager and harpsichordist at Burning River Baroque, “When one looks at the broad span of human history, patterns of war, power struggles and inequality have persisted for millennia. 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, who teaches music from her Cleveland Heights century home, said that Burning River Baroque’s current concert series, Destructive Desires, focuses on content that is "strikingly similar to the stories that have been brought to the forefront of public awareness by the ‘MeToo’ movement.”

The ensemble believes 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," Rauschenfels said, "that these connections can inspire future generations to change the course of history. 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.’” 

For even the untrained listener, Baroque music is impassioned and evocative, using somewhat obscure instruments, such as the harpsichord. In Destructive Desires, Rauschenfels will also play on a 5-string cello—while singing a hauntingly beautiful aria. The audience is provided with historical context, English translation, and thoughtful commentary to enrich the intertwining of harpsichord, cello and voice, while grappling with ancient narratives that highlight the destruction that occurs when an individual's humanity is denigrated by powerful others. 

As concert-goer Ben Malkevitch described it, a Burning River Baroque program is "a lesson in how to demystify older music."

Burning River Baroque performs nationwide. Upcoming Cleveland Heights concerts include Destructive Desires on Oct. 19 (house concert) and Oct. 20 (St. Alban's Episcopal Church). The Oct. 21 concert at Lakewood Congregational Church is a benefit for The YWCA of Greater Cleveland. 

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Shari Nacson

Mostly a mom, Shari Nacson, LISW-S, is a freelance editor, child development specialist and nonprofit consultant who makes her home in Cleveland Heights. 

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Volume 11, Issue 10, Posted 11:57 AM, 10.01.2018