We know by now that the canon of modern music is not a meritocracy. In far too many cases, the 20th century’s totalitarian regimes forced composers into exile, cut them off from the sources that sustained their art, or brought their lives to a ghastly and premature end, long before reputations could solidify and works could find a public.
If that much is clear, the question still remains: What then to do with all the music unheard, the careers swept into oblivion, the life stories so quickly forgotten? A collective of musicians offering one of the most assiduous and eloquent responses to this question will appear this week at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival: the Toronto-based ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory). Founded in 2002, the group has dedicated itself to tracking down the suppressed works of a wide range of 20th-century composers, evaluating the scores on their own merits, and then championing the best of what they find through recordings and live performance.
For its Boston-area debut on July 8, the ARC Ensemble will perform works by George Enescu and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and it will be joined by guest baritone Davóne Tines in Jacques Ibert’s “Chansons de Don Quichotte.” Also on tap at Rockport (July 6) will be a screening of a compelling documentary about the group and its work entitled “Exit: Music.” More than a simple promotional film, it tells the story of music’s fate under the Third Reich through moving portraits of five musicians forced into exile: Paul Ben-Haim, Adolph Busch, Walter Braunfels, Erich Korngold, and Mieczyslaw Weinberg.
The ensemble’s artistic director, Simon Wynberg, who wrote the film, will be on hand for a discussion following its screening. Before setting off for New England, Wynberg spoke with the Globe about the ensemble, its mission of artistic recovery, and the vicissitudes of presenting music that — by definition — audiences have never encountered before.
Q. How did you and the ARC Ensemble arrive at the group’s present mission?
A. I’ve always been interested in looking at the edges of the repertoire. I think I’m just naturally curious about why things are played and why other things aren’t. I do think somehow we’ve become a little obsessed with the great composers, celebrating their anniversaries, their birthdays, recording every single note of their music, and then recording it again — and again. So I always wondered what about these poor buggers who worked hard, were extraordinarily gifted, and weren’t recognized in their day? Unless someone plays it, their music just remains in private collections. And of course, it’s a thrill — for me and for the ensemble — to discover a real masterpiece that you know no one has played for 70 or 80 years.
Q. That’s an experience that musicians working within the heart of the mainstream repertoire don’t typically have.
A. Yes, it’s a whole process that’s lost in the re-performance of the canon. When you’re playing a Beethoven string quartet, you have countless recordings and performances to reference, there’s a certain bedrock of influences. But in cases like this, you’re bringing an interpretation to something that’s never had an interpretation before. In a way it’s something closer to the process from the days before recordings. When you come to something absolutely fresh and are discovering it for the first time, people also listen differently. It’s about the intensity of hearing, and the idea of music being a focal point rather than something in the background.
Q. Over the years, have you seen an evolution in the broader classical audience’s receptivity to listening to unfamiliar works?
A. In some ways, it’s getting harder in the performing realm. But there’s a huge audience exploring things through downloads and YouTube, a separate world of virtual listening. I think as people explore things online, and listen to recordings, there’s a potential to lure them into live performance, which is really where it all starts.
Q. What are the biggest challenges in finding audiences for this type of programming?
A. You hear so often, ‘If the works were any good, we’d know about them already.’ That’s an irrational argument which is very difficult to argue against or even to understand in the first instance. These pieces are unknown because they’re unknown — not because they’re not any good.
Q. Promoting music linked to such a dark period in history also seems inherently complicated. Would you say there is a tension between the commemorative and artistic aspects of the ARC’s mission?
A. There is a school of thought that says we have an obligation to look at a composer’s music because of the catastrophe of their life or the circumstances of their death. I don’t buy that at all. I think if it’s worth playing, it’s worth playing. It has nothing to do with the nature of the composer’s life or whether they died in a concentration camp. You have to judge a work of art on its own merits. Its value is intrinsic.
Q. Of the works the ARC Ensemble rediscovered and introduced anew, which scores appear to be really catching on?
A. The Weinberg Piano Quintet. When we recorded that, there were no available recordings at all. Since we recorded that in 2006, I think there are about seven or eight recordings now. Also the Braunfels two-cello Quintet. It’s an amazing piece of music. I’m surprised it isn’t played more often because it really is one of the great chamber pieces of the 20th century, a complete masterpiece.
Q. How did you choose the current program — works by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Enescu, and Ibert — that you’ll be bringing to Rockport?
A. The Tedesco Piano Quintet No. 1 is a sunny, Mediterranean piece with gorgeous themes — just a glorious contented kind of work. The Enescu Piano Quartet is a different ball of wax. It’s hard as hell to perform. The piano part is really demanding. And it’s complex and dark, but also involving in a much deeper and more emotionally committed kind of way. And I’m thrilled we have this opportunity to work with Davóne Tines, who will be singing the Ibert (“Chansons de Don Quichotte”).
Rockport Chamber Music Festival
The documentary “Exit: Music” on July 6, and a performance by the ARC Ensemble on July 8. 978-546-7391, www.rockportmusic.org