Thursday, May 14, 2015

Looking Back on Season 14

Catacoustic’s Season 14 just wrapped up. Here’s a look back:

We actually never got a break between Season 13 and Season 14, because last summer was as busy as the rest of the year. Our collaboration with Cincinnati Opera is now the stuff of legend:  Their first ever Baroque Opera, La Calisto, set all kinds of attendance records and created a buzz that went all the way to a review in Opera News. The singers brought the house down (including local countertenor and frequent Catacoustic guest Michael Maniaci) but the pit orchestra, with its core of Catacoustic performers, received an unusual amount of attention: it was “a constant source of delight,” according to Opera News.

The other half of that collaboration was a concert, part of the Cincinnati Remembers WWI series. Poetry from the Great War, performed by members of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, was interspersed with music from the Baroque period on themes of war and loss. Catacoustic’s instrumentalists and the Opera’s singers performed exquisitely, and there was more than one tear-stained face by the end.

No sooner had all that wrapped up than we were off to the annual Conclave of the Viola da Gamba Society of America. Catacoustic was a featured performer on their concert night, presenting the Italian music that is one of their specialties. Annalisa played her lirone – always an event – and another local singer, Melissa Harvey, stopped hearts with some laments that never seemed to go on long enough.

The summer also saw the release of our newest CD. Secret of the Muse is a collection of music written for pardessus, the viol-violin hybrid wildly popular in pre-Revolutionary France. Most of this music had never been recorded before. To purchase a copy, click here:

And one last thing from our crazy summer of 2014: We awarded our fourth annual Early Music Scholarship to not one but to two young viol players. The awards helped them purchase their own instruments, setting them on the path to a career in early music.

Lutenist Dan Swenberg and baritone Aaron Cain at CCM

In September, Season 14 officially opened with a masterwork by Dieterich Buxtehude, Membra Jesu Nostri. This oratorio is very rarely performed, and requires 12 musicians. Some of those musicians lectured and held lessons and workshops for local students at UC-CCM, while they were in town. We held the concert on a sunny Sunday afternoon, in a building known for its Tiffany stained glass windows, so it was truly a multi-sensory experience. Mary Ellyn Hutton included it on her list of the best concerts of 2014.

In November we had tenor Sumner Thompson sing – to the accompaniment of the rarely heard lirone and Baroque harp – spectacular 16th century Italian songs almost certainly never performed in Cincinnati before. Thompson has an extraordinary voice that straddles the tenor and baritone ranges, and he was returning to town after singing in Carmen during the summer. 

January and February found us playing at four branches of the Public Library, for a series called
Music of the Renaissance. Well over 100 people came to what proved to be lively informal concerts with lots of questions and story-telling. These were also a performance opportunity for our scholarship winners, as part of our pre-professional mentoring program.

At the end of February, after an extremely successful month of Early Music Festival, we had another singer, soprano Shannon Mercer. This repertoire was French, 18th century sacred music for voice and pardessus. Shannon Mercer could make a stone weep, her voice is so beautiful. 

In March we had a concert of English music, from their complicated, contrarian Baroque period. Local soprano, Melissa Harvey, sang with us again, and we were in a beautiful new venue in Covington with more astonishing stained glass windows. We had trouble resuming after the intermission, because everyone was so busy enjoying the building.

In April we planned a very special departure. People have often asked us to play more modern music – an odd request of a Baroque ensemble!  But we figured out how to manage it. Annalisa assembled four of the best viol players in the United States to tackle contemporary music that ranged from all over the globe, with music based on Australian Aboriginal chant, that channeled the folk music of Britain, and that set to music Medieval Chinese poetry. Mixed in were Renaissance pieces that stood apart from their time, written by cantankerous free-thinkers of the past. The amazing Michael Maniaci sang – even in Chinese! – the musicians spoke about this deeply unusual music, there was an encore that made the people sitting around me sigh with delight. It was an afternoon that won’t soon be forgotten.

And while those extraordinary musicians were in town, Catacoustic hosted a workshop for local singers and viol players, giving about 10 local people the chance to study with master teachers from around the country.

After all this, we’re taking time this summer to get stuff done! We start right away with this year's yard sale to raise funds for next year's scholarship. It's May 23 -- details at We have some beautiful things to sell this year, so tell all your friends and come out to support early music in Cincinnati!

And stay tuned:  planning for Season 15 is well under way, and we plan to make it very special.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Unique Voice and Career of Michael Maniaci

Internationally acclaimed Michael Maniaci will be singing at Catacoustic's final concert this season on April 26. (For more information on this concert, click here.) Let's learn a little more about him.

You have such an unusual voice – what can you tell us about it? How does your range compare to countertenors, altos, sopranos? How do you find or choose music that suits it?

My range is most similar to that of a mezzo soprano. It sits higher than most traditional countertenor voices. Yet one of the best things to come out of the industry's relatively new fascination with countertenors in opera repertoire is how varied and unique each countertenor voice truly is. No two sound alike, and it’s great fun to hear the differences and contrasts between multiple voices in the countertenor family.  My voice happens to sit higher than most…but the easiest vocal description is to be referred to as a countertenor.

While most countertenors have specialized in operatic repertoire that sits in a solid alto register, I’m most comfortable in higher roles, such as Sesto in Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito, Idamante in Idomeneo, and Sesto in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. It can be challenging to find opportunities to perform these roles, as rather conservative producers still tend to favor women playing these male characters. But I’ve been fortunate to perform both the Mozart roles in Toronto with Tafelmusik, and they were exceptionally enjoyable musical experiences.

What kind of music do you like to sing best?  What are your favorite performances? 

My career began on opera stages, as opposed to appearing in concerts halls. This wasn’t a personal choice, it’s just how the cookie crumbled. So the majority of my most memorable musical experiences come from the opera stage. When I had recently graduated from CCM, and was continuing my studies at the Juilliard School, I was invited to sing the title role in Handel’s Xerxes at Wolf Trap, in their superb Young Artists program. I remember being terrified ahead of time. Never having tackled a role so vocally and dramatically demanding before, I was scared I would fall flat on my face. But I learned so much that summer, and had amazing support and encouragement from conductor Gary Wedow, who taught me so much. I surpassed my own expectations and discovered I had the right to do this when I grew up, and needed to keep working hard to hone my craft.

Another meaningful moment occurred when I sang the role of Medoro in Handel’s Orlando at Glimmerglass Opera - a role they offered me a year earlier while in their Young Artists program. It was my first chance to share the stage with a truly world-class cast, and receive my first exposure to major US and international press. Medoro sings a haunting aria in Act 2, when he and his lover, believing they will never see each other again, carve their initials into a tree, so all may know of their love after their deaths. It was the first time I brought down a house  -- and while every kid who dreams of show biz takes pretend bows in the basement to imaginary cheers and applause, when it actually happened tears welled up and I just felt so fortunate and blessed to be there.

Since then there have been amazing experiences, such as my Metropolitan Opera debut in Giulio Cesare, (including running offstage at the end of a scene and crashing into set pieces that had been moved into place for the next day’s performance of a different production), being hired by Teatro La Fenice to learn, memorize, and pull off the title role in Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto in two weeks and winding up on the DVD (which was shot from the final dress and second performance… the final dress being the first time I was ever in costume, let alone singing the role from beginning to end), and Christopher Alden’s wonderfully singular and powerful staging of Handel’s Imeneo at Glimmerglass Opera. Chris knew the score better than anyone else in the room, and his ideas and focus challenged me so deeply in the most wonderful sense. He helped me find something so profound and meaningful…the connection with the audience was truly intense, and I’ve really never experienced an opera production like it since.

How do you come to live in Cincinnati?

I attended UC-CCM as an undergraduate, where I studied with David Adams, and from there continued my education at the Juilliard School. I’m still so impressed by the work ethic and standards CCM instills in its students, and the results their graduates enjoy. It really was a phenomenal experience and I’m proud to be an alum.

Tell us about the music from this upcoming concert. Will you have to sing in Chinese?

For this concert, the repertoire will be contemporary, but written for baroque instruments. I can’t think of anything more fun. To hear these baroque instrumental colors exploited by modern artistic sensibilities and musical palates is fantastic. Whether a piece was written in 2015 or 1715, the same responsibilities still apply:  bringing to life the text and color world the composer has provided in the score. The piece by Tan Dun is in Chinese, but this is not my first experience with the language or culture. On a one-month tour of China and Singapore with the Shanghai Opera Orchestra, I learned, or rather had pounded into my brain, two Mandarin folk songs which I performed from memory. While on my trip I saw a lot of arts programming on television, which included transfixing excerpts of traditional Chinese opera. The sounds, style, and vocal techniques from that genre will be on full display in our concert - and it will offer the Catacoustic audiences the chance to listen to something they’ve never heard before in Cincinnati.

I look forward to seeing everyone at the performance and will be there to visit for a bit afterwards.  Unfortunately I won’t be able to stay for long as I have to drive overnight to Charleston, SC. My rehearsals for a staged production of Cavalli’s Veremonda with Spoleto USA begin the next morning at 10:00 am! This program will be a lot of fun and I’m honored to be a part of Catacoustic’s spring season. See you there!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Turn of the Year

Catacoustic’s concert on April 26 will be unlike any other.

For years audiences have asked us for a concert with more modern music. Our specialty being Baroque and Renaissance music, we have taken our time planning what such a departure might look like. The concert we have put together will satisfy those hungering for something truly different from anything they have heard before. And also those who just want to hear amazing, amazing music.

We have chosen to pair historical composers – in this case, composers from the early part of our usual range, the first century of the Renaissance – with contemporary composers, most still living. These historical composers are some who strayed far outside their appointed times, paying little heed to the expectations of their contemporaries. And these modern composers have turned to that quintessential Renaissance instrument, the viola da gamba, to express the texture-rich, rule-defying, global sound of our interconnected world.

Representing the 21st century:

  • Gavin Bryars has studied with John Cage, worked with Brian Eno, been recorded by Tom Waits, and been danced to by Merce Cunningham. His work often uses found sound and improvisation.
  • Peter Sculthorpe was from Tasmania and was part Aborigine. He had a strong interest in the cultures of Asia and the South Pacific, in particular the indigenous peoples of Australia – his compositions include a Requiem featuring didgeridoo solo.

  • Mike Edwards experimented with a variety of musical styles as a cellist, including jazz, folk, and his rock and roll years with the Electric Light Orchestra.  In the end, though, he found his true love in Baroque music and the viol, founding and performing with the Devon Baroque orchestra.

    Tan Dun
  • Tan Dun is best known in this country for his film scores for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, but this is only a small part of his musical achievement. Others include opera, symphonic music, chamber works, Peking opera, and – his specialty – “organic” music written for paper, water, stones, and other found objects.

  • Elvis Costello is one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of the last forty years. He is a Grammy winner, member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and collaborator with a vast range of musicians in almost every imaginable genre:  the list might start with George Jones (country), Bill Frisell (jazz), Burt Bacharach (pop), and Paul McCartney (you know), but that would only scratch the surface. He has also composed classical opera and worked with mezzo Anne Sophie von Otter.

The unifying theme of all these composers is the wide range of their musical interests, their love of exploration, and their rejection of a single genre as being definitive to their expression.  And did I mention that they composed music for viola da gamba?

Representing the 16th century:

  •  Alexander Agricola, 1445-1506, was known for his endless variety and electrifying musical
    intensity. While Columbus was sailing for the Indies, Agricola was composing confounding music that some critics called sublime and others called crazy. His music is willful and complex, filled with puzzles and perversions of the accepted practices of his time.

  • ChristopherTye, 1505-1573, was an enthusiastic composer of consort music. He was known to experiment with eccentric meters, even going so far as using different meters for different parts simultaneously.

  • Cipriano de Rore, 1515-1565, was a composer of contradiction. His sacred music was deliberately retro, harkening back to Josquin of 50 years earlier, but his secular music was wildly forward-looking:  serious, chromatic, employing an oddly free relationship with his texts.

  • Carlo Gesualdo, 1566-1613, was one of the maddest composers of his or any time. Actual mental illness is certainly possible, and Aldous Huxley called his work the “strange products of a Counter-Reformation psychosis working upon a late medieval art form.”  But his music presages the shifting tonalities, the chromatic anti-melodies, and a technically difficult yet deeply felt expressiveness that would not re-appear until the late 19th century.

Their unifying principle? They don’t care, they just do what they want. They did their thing, and if it took 400 years for anyone else to get it, too bad.

The music is as extraordinary as its creators. Four of the greatest viol players in the United States today will gather to take it on. And just to pile it on a little higher, singing will be the great male soprano Michael Maniaci, another musical outsider who does what he does and waits for the rest of the world to catch up.

Thank you, audience, for pushing us out of our comfort zone. Join us to discover what's out here.

Sunday, April 26, 2015, 3:00pm
Church of the Redeemer, 2944 Erie Avenue, Cincinnati (Hyde Park), OH 45208
Individual tickets are $25 general, $10 student. Children 12 and under are always free. Tickets are available at the door, in advance by calling 513.772.3242, or at

Thursday, March 12, 2015

James Brown, Guest Musician for Catacoustic's March 22 Concert, a Modern-Day Renaissance Man

The following is from a telephone interview between Annalisa Pappano and James Brown, who will join Catacoustic in their concert on March 22: Great Musick's Myseries: The Exquisite Consorts. See for more information about the concert.

I played in your concert series last year in Austin, Texas for a solo pardessus program. It was exciting to meet someone else who has a concert series that is a similar model as Catacoustic - that is an early music group where you self-present and play in each concert, and you bring in guest musicians to play, as well. In fact, in our concert together, Michael Leopold (a regular with Catacoustic since we began 14 years ago) joined us! There are not many groups like this in the States. How long have you had your concert series, and what made you decide to start it?

I have been running this series for just under 14 years. The series was already connected with the church where I work, but it had been dropped. When I was hired, they asked if I wanted to pick it up again. It was quite modest, and gradually I began planning bigger concerts. The first big one we did was Emma Kirkby with Fretwork. Four years ago we decided exclusively to present early music, and the series was 2/3 presented material and 1/3 self-produced. It helped having local/regional combined with national talent. In the last board meeting, we decided to become a 100% presenting organization. Next year, we will have Tallis Scholars, Anonymous IV, & Vox Luminis. The format is changing, and it seems that this is what is best for our audience and for the series to grow.

How did you get interested in early music and playing the viol? Where did you study?

My undergraduate degree was in organ. I was always interested in early keyboard music – Couperin, Bach, etc. Through that, I was introduced to the harpsichord,which led to my first trip to the Amherst Early Music workshop. They suggested that I take one class in something I know nothing about, so I decided to take beginning viol. By the end of the first week, I was able to play and sing at the same time. I was hooked. I came home and immediately had to figure out how to get my hands on a viol. I went back to Amherst the next year with my OWN viol. Later, I gave up playing keyboard instruments to pursue the gamba. My training has been largely self-study. When I lived in NY, I took gamba lessons with Martha McGaughey. Other teachers have included Margriet Tindemans, Mary Springfels, and Catharina Meints. I continue to study with workshops, private lessons, and masterclasses.

You helped with some musical choices for our upcoming March program. While super fun to play, it is pretty challenging, technically-speaking! Is 17th-century English (the rep in this concert) a favorite of yours? What draws you to this music, and what do you find interesting about it?

I love spending my time on 17th-century music across the board, more than anything else. The fusion of Italian music with other national influences: English, French, or German speaks to me.

When I stayed with you last winter, I was so impressed by your many interests! You are an amazing cook and studied at the Art Institute in NYC. Your food was some of the best I have had, and YOU said it was simple. You were just getting ready to make a special orange liquor, and another interest you have is fixing vintage bicycles and a special type of racing. Tell more about these passions. How are your different interests related, and do they complement each other?

They do, in some ways. It would be fun to combine it all in an event – food and music! I have been talking to viol player Jay Bernfeld, who is combining food and music for concerts in France and Florida. What a rich experience we could have, if we would have food and a beverage as fellowship with live music.

I like to do many different things. Since I was a kid, I had five hobbies at once. I like the complexity of things. The complexity of making my own bitters, the complexity of 17th-century music, the complexity of my own dishes.

What would you say to someone who is interested in starting up a music series like yours or Catacoustic? Any advice? What about someone who wants to pursue an unusual passion like the viola da gamba?

I think that those passions and what you do with them generally are what you make of them. If you are going to play an instrument that is not in the mainstream, you nee to be prepared to do all that comes with that and wear different hats. You need to know the rep – solo and chamber. You need to be ready to create opportunities to play. Even the best viol players have to do other things.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Great Musick's Mysteries: The Exquisite Consorts

In a time when new worlds were being discovered, musical pioneers were also charting new territories.  Experience the adventure of music from the Age of Discovery when harmonic boundaries
were pushed and uncharted melodic lands were traversed. Your senses will be delighted by the unusual sounds and textures of 17th-century music by John Jenkins and brothers Henry and William Lawes.

Local soprano Melissa Harvey will also sing the beautiful poetry of John Milton, Robert Herrick, and Ben Jonson. Fittingly, we will also be exploring a new venue for Catacoustic, at the lovely jewel box of Trinity Episcopal in Covington.

Musicians include Annalisa Pappano (Artistic director, treble viol), James Brown (bass viol, Austin), Elizabeth Motter (Baroque triple harp,Cincinnati), David Walker (theorbo, Chicago), and Melissa Harvey (soprano, Cincinnati).

Preview a harp consort by William Lawes here.

Sunday, March 22, 2015, 3:00 pm

Trinity Episcopal Church, 326 Madison Avenue, Covington, KY 41011

Tickets: Individual tickets are $25 general, $10 student. Children 12 and under are always free. Tickets are available at the door, in advance by calling 513.772.3242, or at

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Looking Back on the Cincinnati Early Music Festival, 2015

What were the numbers?

We had eighteen unique events, at sixteen different venues. 324 performers, and 2150 audience members. This last number is 45% more than last year.

Who were the participating groups?

Cantigium. Rod and Mary Stucky. The Shakespeare Band. Catacoustic’s pre-professional mentoring program. Cincinnati Bach Ensemble. Cincinnati Camerata. Consort in the Egg. The Vicars Choral. Harpers Robin. Cantantes Camarae. Cincinnati Viol Consort. Cincinnati Recorder Consort. The Choir of Saint Peter in Chains Cathedral. Xavier University’s Edgecliff Vocal Ensemble. The CCM Opera Studio  and undergraduate series. The Knox Choir. Michael Unger’s keyboard studio. Cincinnati Chamber Opera. The Catacoustic Consort. And several ad hoc combinations that came together just for the Festival.

Who was the most ubiquitous performer of the year?

Bill Willits. He played lute, theorbo, Renaissance guitar, and modern guitar. He played with the Shakespeare Band (twice), Consort in the Egg (three times), in a Telemann flute-guitar duo, and in the pit of Poppea. 

What were some memorable moments?

  • Scott Hewitt and his contrabass recorder, an instrument that towers above its performer, that looks like a cross between a totem pole and a didgeridoo and sounds as sweet as the wind through the lava tubes of Venus.
  • The lovely performance of Hans Leo Hassler’s Verbum caro factum est by the Edgecliff Vocal Ensemble. What choral music should be about.
  • Cornamuse and hurdy-gurdy duets, or the Larry and Michael show. They’ve clearly been missing from my life too long.

  • Barbara LeMay as the villainous Polinesso in Ariodante. She sneered, she seduced, she purred, she snarled, she twirled her metaphorical black mustache in every way possible.  She was hilariously evil. More bad guys like this, please!

  • Matthew Swanson saying that when he returned to the States and could have settled anywhere, he came to Cincinnati because he knew he could make a living here as a choral conductor.  That’s the kind of city we live in!
  • "Sweep chimney sweep, from the bottom to the top. Then shall no soot fall in your porridge pot." Because that would be bad.

  • The troubadour songs performed by the Harpers Robin concert. First, all those harps playing together sounded so pretty, and then suddenly during a 13th century tune called Winder wie ist the harpists began to sing.  The hair lifted off my neck and I could smell the smoke from a distant hearth and feel the damp rising from snows long melted and hear the ghosts of the minnesingers long past.
I should've taken up viola da gamba
  • Overheard by an audience member:  “They play an instrument called Vasco da Gama.  I think that’s what they’re called.”

  • As far as early music warhorses go, you can’t get much better than Les Baricades mist√©rieuses by Couperin, and it was a pure pleasure to hear it crashing out of the William Dowd harpsichord at Christ Church Cathedral.

  • Armando Linares’ voice (of Cantantes Camarae ). It’s just so warm and pleasant.

  • The entire Catacoustic concert was a standout, and the soprano Shannon Mercer was amazing, but I think my very favorite moment of the evening was the instrumental, a little sonata for harpsichord and pardessus. It was spectacularly beautiful, and the mystery is why this isn’t a warhorse.

Is there any more early music to come?

Oh yes! The Bach Festival is already in full swing, Bach Vespers happen every month, Ubi Caritas has a concert coming up in April, Christ Church Cathedral has early music going on all the time – note especially the Charpentier cantata coming up at the end of March – and Catacoustic has two more concerts left in their season, one in March and one in April. Let’s face it:  Early Music is no longer the exotic occasional guest. It’s become a standard, year-round player in the Cincinnati arts scene. Join the Cincinnati Early Music Project Facebook page to keep informed of events as they arise.