Mark Ingram seeks out classical music.
A former trumpet player in the Ozark Festival Orchestra, Ingram has traveled from his home in rural Barry County to Kansas City, St. Louis and Fayetteville, Arkansas, to attend performances of symphony orchestras and other ensembles.
But among his favorite drives are the 60-mile trips he takes to Joplin specifically for Pro Musica concerts.
“It’s a resource that otherwise you’d have to go to a pretty big metropolitan area to find,” Ingram said. “When you’ve got this kind of stuff in Joplin, you might as well take advantage of it.”
Pro Musica, the local nonprofit that aims to bring “ageless music for all ages” to Joplin, is entering its 40th season, which it has dubbed the season of encore performances. All six ensembles, performing in Joplin-area churches and schools beginning Sept. 19 and running through April, have been considered among the favorite musical groups of Pro Musica officials and concert-goers alike in past seasons.
“We thought we’d see if we could build a season of favorites because 40 years is nothing to sneeze at,” said Deborah Billings, Pro Musica’s executive director since 2017.
Origins of Pro Musica
Pro Musica was founded in 1981 by Cynthia Schwab, who moved to Joplin in 1965 and missed the classical music concerts she had grown accustomed to as a native New Yorker. The initial season featured a single concert by the St. Louis Brass Quintet. The organization incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit five years later.
Over the years, Pro Musica has brought classical music and chamber music — that which is composed for small, intimate settings and usually for three to five musicians — ensembles to perform in Joplin. A typical season currently has half a dozen performances throughout the year.
“The main thing is to give people a choice,” Billings said. “There wasn’t anything available (when Pro Musica began), so how would you know if you liked classical music, or if you wanted to learn how to play the violin or cello, if you never heard it?”
Billings stresses that classical music isn’t necessarily constrained by the old composers that everyone grew up learning about, such as Beethoven or Bach. There are plenty of modern composers writing music for classical and chamber ensembles, including St. Louis-born Kevin Puts, the 47-year-old who won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his opera “Silent Night.”
Some compositions also come with stories, frequently told by the musicians themselves just before or after their performance. One ensemble several seasons ago, for example, performed a piece by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich that featured the repetition of three staccato notes, thought to represent the feared knock on the door that suspected dissidents faced under the regime of Joseph Stalin.
“I think people assume (classical music) is stuffy or boring, and that’s not the case — but you would not know that unless you heard it,” Billings said.
Gwen Hunt, a Webb City resident who has attended most Pro Musica concerts since its inception, loves all classical music but said she’s particularly fond of chamber music.
“It always reminds me of a very lively conversation among friends,” she said. “You can hear every instrument, hear them answering each other and echoing each other.”
Another key component of Pro Musica’s mission is its arts education program, which sends each ensemble that performs in Joplin into the community. One string quartet each season is chosen for a residency with the Joplin School District, performing for all pupils in the fourth and fifth grades.
Other audiences for these community workshops and performances include homeschooled students, local private and parochial schools, local college and university music groups and organizations serving populations that don’t necessarily have access to music concerts, including assisted living facilities or nursing homes.
One on-and-off community destination for these ensembles over the past decade is Lafayette House, which provides services to victims of domestic abuse, substance abuse and sexual assault.
A Pro Musica group last visited Lafayette House in October, offering an informal concert and conversation with the organization’s clients and children in its day care program, said Louise Secker, development director.
“We get really good feedback (from our clients) because it’s something that’s different,” she said. “It’s a cultural experience that is brought to us, so it’s a nice change for them from their normal education or support group schedule.”
Gloria Jardon, of Joplin, has attended nearly every concert since Pro Musica began. That would be a conservative estimate of roughly 200 classical music concerts in the past four decades, she said.
Frequently, she helps to turn pages of sheet music for the musicians during their performances.
“I have the best seat in the house,” she said. “When I get to do that, it’s a wonderful experience. I’m so impressed that they put more into it than is on the page; they’re real artists.”
‘A heritage for all of us’
Because Pro Musica is funded by foundation and grant awards as well as private donations from businesses and individuals, its leaders pride themselves on offering their chamber music concerts — which represent most of the concerts produced each season — for free to the public. That was important to Schwab, the founder who wanted classical music to be accessible to everyone.
“That gives everybody the opportunity to try it and see if they like it,” she said. “It allows families to come, and children to come, and young people who may not have discretionary money for performances.”
Much of Joplin’s cultural landscape has changed in the nearly 40 years that Pro Musica has been around, and Schwab believes that her nonprofit helped launch a solid foundation for the arts in the city.
“I think Joplin has really become an arts center,” she said. “We were among the first (arts organizations), which amazes me. I look back behind me, and lo and behold, there are more and more opportunities.”
Those opportunities include a variety of theater organizations, art galleries, hands-on craft lessons, festivals and other music groups. Connect2Culture, for example, several years ago launched its annual Curtains Up music series and is spearheading an effort to build a new arts and entertainment complex near downtown Joplin.
“Because we’ve been here so long, I think this laid some groundwork,” Billings said. “I think Pro Musica has created a taste for arts and culture and has fed that along the way.”
Schwab hopes that legacy will continue.
“When I first started this, I wanted this to be the yardstick by which people measured the music they heard,” she said. “Pro Musica, I hope, goes on way beyond me because the music is a heritage for all of us.”