If it weren’t for a mudslide, Richard Spece wouldn’t be pulling together a classical orchestra of period instruments in Richmond. While Spece was working on his doctorate in 1997, his mentor’s Seattle home was wiped out.
“He was standing in his kitchen and heard this rumbling,” says Spece, whose Mannheim Rocket Orchestra will play at Monumental Church on Friday. “He was thrown into the counter in front of him. It’s amazing that he survived. The part that he was in was the only 10 feet [of the house] that remained standing.”
Spece’s mentor was William McColl, one of the founders of the period instrument movement, in which musicians play replicas of centuries-old instruments to create the sound that classical composers intended. Still pulling old clarinets out of the mud and dealing with the destruction of his house, McColl asked Spece if he could play a period instrument gig in Berkeley, California, in his stead. The experience was transformative.
“The first time I sat in that orchestra in Berkeley and we played Beethoven’s Fifth, I couldn’t believe the tone I was hearing,” says Spece, a classically trained clarinetist. “The difference would be like listening to U2 versus an acoustic version of Peter, Paul and Mary.”
Instead of black hardwoods, period clarinets are made from soft European boxwoods. Period trumpets use finger holes instead of valves, and French horns use neither. Flutes have far fewer keys, and string instruments are strung with gut strings instead of steel.
“There’s a huge difference in the quality of the sounds, the color of the sounds, the volume of the sounds,” says Spece, Mannheim Rocket’s founder and conductor. “When you play Mozart, Beethoven, C.P.E. Bach … it’s a completely different soundscape and flavor.”
The 24-piece orchestra will play its inaugural event Friday, performing Beethoven’s First and Mozart’s 40th symphonies. The effect will be akin to stepping back in time two centuries: Monumental Church celebrated its 200th anniversary last year and the instruments and music will replicate the 1810s.
The acoustics of Monumental Church are perfect for Mannheim Rocket, Spece says. “The whole orchestra is not very loud,” he says. “It suits a much smaller space. It wouldn’t work to put an orchestra like this in a 2,000-person hall.”
The instruments of yesteryear played more softly, and often had less range than their modern equivalents. Early clarinets, for example, could play only a minimal number of key signatures, far different from today’s instruments that can play in all 24 key signatures. Modern versions of orchestral instruments didn’t begin to appear until the 1840s and 1850s.
“What I like about playing period instruments is that tone-blend, chamber-music aspect of it,” Spece says. To take part in the show, musicians are flying into Richmond from across the country to volunteer. At some point, Spece hopes that the orchestra will be able to support as many as five concerts a year.
West Virginia’s Marshall University Fife and Drum Corps will open the event, clad in tri-cornered hats and period garb. Spece has a longstanding relationship with Marshall University, coincidentally which is named after John Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice who commissioned the construction of Monumental Church centuries ago.
The performance is just one of many intriguing events for which Historic Richmond is serving as host. The nonprofit will hold a meeting of its Quoit Club on March 19 at the historic home of James Netherwood in Church Hill while it undergoes a restoration. It’s essentially a happy hour in different historic locations, with the club providing food and drinks at its monthly events.
“We really try to move things around to different parts of town and different projects to shed light on properties that are at risk or have recently undergone restoration,” says Cyane Crump, Historic Richmond’s interim executive director. Future Quoit Club locations include the Byrd Theatre, the Altria Theatre, Pump House Park and a hard-hat tour of the construction site for Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art.
The club will hold its first-ever Rehab Expo on April 18, helping homeowners learn how to renovate historic houses. Topics will include how to qualify for rehabilitation tax credits, improve energy efficiency and research a historic property. The event will take place at the headquarters of Dovetail Construction Co. on Brook Road.
Just a few days later, Historic Richmond will take part in the Garden Club of Virginia’s Historic Garden Week, leading tours through several historic properties in the Hermitage Road historic district near Bryan Park.
For Spece, the orchestra event is all about providing a new experience for Richmond listeners. “It’s really different than going to a modern orchestra,” he says. “It’s going to be a sound that Richmond audiences have never heard before.” S
“A Night with Mannheim Rocket Orchestra” is March 13 at Monumental Church, 1224 E. Broad St. The preconcert lecture starts at 7:30 p.m. with the concert at 8. Tickets are $25-$30. Call 643-7407 or visit historicrichmond.com.