Friday, August 14, 2015

A Chat with Donald Livingston, founder of the Twin Cities Early Music Festival

The Twin Cities Early Music Festival is under the umbrella of Lyra Baroque and is in its second year of existence. It is led by Donald Livingston, a talented harpsichordist and organist, (who attended Indiana University’s Early Music Institute at the same time I did). He has since moved to the Twin Cities, where he has shared his musical talent. Cincinnati’s own Baroque harp player Elizabeth Motter is performing a concert in the TCEMF with Consortium Carissimi. You can learn more about the Twin Cities Early Music Festival by visiting their website at

What inspired you to start the festival? What is the model?

There has been talk for years among different groups in town about starting a festival. Nothing ever came of it, though – probably because it was a ton of work. A “festival” can mean so many different things, too. No one really knew what this meant because they were not talking about the same thing. I started the TCEMF, based on an idea that my dad had: “you can’t start a parked car.” You won’t go anywhere, if you aren’t moving. You have to be willing to take a chance and go in the wrong direction.

I decided to start the festival last year, using the resources we have locally. It also helped to base it on what our state funding agency’s requirements were for a festival. The second year was shaped with input from the first year’s participants.

In addition, I looked at all the things in this country that call themselves a festival, examined their structure and mission, and modeled appropriately. The Madison Early Music Festival has a strong workshop component and is primarily for amateur musician participants. The Boston and Berkeley Festivals are large organizations with a presenting function. There is also Boston’s producing aspect with their successful operas. Boston also has a fringe concert element, where musicians can self-produce. Anyone can present a concert at Boston!  This was a great aspect to consider because our festival can be based on people here – not just imported stars who leave the day after the concert. This fringe concert element allows everyone to have a place at the table. We do bring in a few highly-skilled players to inspire us and raise the bar even more. However, I like the aspect of our choosing rep, based on the people and skills available, locally.

What is your vision for the future of the festival?

We already have a Baroque instrumental program, which is a workshop structure for fine players already. Goals for the future include fostering and nurturing amateurs from the larger community, who want to play early music. We want that grass-roots musical experience that can happen with early music. This will cultivate an environment here in the Twin Cities to inspire more amateur and professional interest and will make us a more desirable place to live and make music.

How many groups are there? How many events?

There are around 24 groups and 4 soloists this year. About 6 of the performances are ad-hoc arrangements, where people formed ensembles just for festival. Some concerts are new groups or older groups that came back together for the festival.

When is the festival? Tell me about the venues for the festival?

The festival is the entire month of August. We have a variety of venues: the Landmark Center (a former federal courthouse turned arts center), the Schubert Club, the University of Minnesota, Augsburg College, and Hamline University, and three prominent churches.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The People of Catacoustic: Fred Martens

With this post we begin an occasional series on the people behind the scenes of Catacoustic. A lot of fascinating people work hard to make what we do possible. 

Meet Fred Martens, Catacoustic Consort’s graphic and web designer. If you’ve ever noticed how beautiful our website is; if you’ve ever admired the artwork on our brochures, postcards, or posters; if you bought our latest CD and noticed its attractive, easy- to-read packaging, then you’ve experienced the Martens touch. Fred is the heart and soul of Catacoustic’s visual presentation, and it’s high time he takes a bow!

Fred grew up in West Virginia, scion of an artistic and musical family: his father was a second-generation architect and sculptor, his mother a composer who collaborated with Martha Graham and
Eloise & Robert Martens
counted Duke Ellington among her fans. Fred came to Cincinnati to pursue his love of art at Edgecliff College. (This was in the era after it was the progressive women’s college, Our Lady of Cincinnati, and before it was absorbed into Xavier University.)
teaching at Boys Club, 1970s

 He worked his way through college by teaching art at the Boys’ Club in Over-the-Rhine, and then continued teaching for many years in local Catholic schools and at Holmes High in Covington. After getting his Master’s degree in education at Xavier he taught there as an adjunct for many years as well. His philosophy of teaching includes creating a sense of mission in his students. He required all his design students to create volunteer work for non-profit organizations. He told his students, “You have a gift, which is about more than making money. You have the choice to also serve the community around you.” He’s still in touch with many of his old students. “You changed my life” is a phrase he has heard many times.

As a result of his interest in helping others, he received awards and acknowledgements, from an article in the Cincinnati Business Courier and inclusion in Inspire Cincinnati’s “Eight Inspiring Men” issue, to receiving Edgecliff College’s top alumni honor, the Sullivan Award.

Holmes HS art teacher, 1984
 While getting his M.Ed. at Xavier University, though, his own life changed course, almost by accident. When asked by a teacher to “write about projecting yourself into the happiest place you could imagine,” he pictured himself working in an urban art studio. As surprised as he was by this vision, he had the wisdom to take a year off from teaching and explore it. He quickly found that the creative life was the one he was meant to live, and thus was born Martens’ Art, and his career in graphic design.  

In design, what he loves most isn’t making things pretty, but the complex process of problem solving.  “I really like it when I hit the mark, when a client hands a business card I designed to someone who then really gets what he does and energy is created between them. Good design can make people’s dreams happen.”

Fred has worked with many organizations including those in industry, law, and mental health. He has a special affinity for the arts, though, and has been pleased to work closely with the CSO, the Constella Festival, Chamber Music Cincinnati, Music for All Seasons, and the International Trumpet Convention, among others.
Being self-employed as a graphic designer allowed Fred to pursue other creative interests along the
way, involving music, theatre, and performing.

Having studied clarinet performance in college and after, he played with a touring woodwind quintet and trio (via the Ohio Touring Arts Roster) performing in Ohio for children and adults. This was a perfect blend for Fred; he drew the illustrations for their “Peter and the Wolf” performance (the drawings being projected behind the ensemble). He worked his childhood vampire and monster
makeup obsessions into other performances, creating the costumes and makeup for a series of “Vampire Quintet” gigs. Eventually the ensemble (performing as animals and vampires) became represented by the Robert Gewald Management Agency (in NYC) until they tired of the stresses of travel.

Now he enjoys the theatrical arts from backstage as an accomplished reed doubler, a versatile musician who can play parts of more than a half a dozen single-reed instruments (plus a bit of flute and recorder) for musical theater companies around the Tri-State. Fred has probably played in the pit orchestra in many of the productions you have attended over the years. He is also a proud member of Squeeze Play, our city’s accordion band. That’s right – eighteen accordions and seven accompanying instruments (there’s Fred on the clarinet or saxophone!) They’ve played with the Cincinnati Pops six times, and every year at Cincinnati’s Oktoberfest. And the best part is that Fred’s partner Warren Liang, a lifelong accordionist, is a member too. What do you get when you fill a house with love and polka music? A branch campus of Heaven.
Squeeze Play, and in the pit

So how did Fred get mixed up in Catacoustic? Remember that sense of mission he instilled into his students? Fred walks the talk by engaging with nonprofits in the way he can offer the most. And he loves Catacoustic’s mission as well. “Catacoustic is unique among Cincinnati ensembles. The music it plays is fragile but enduring. I feel like I am getting in on the ground level of something that is ready to explode as more people become aware of it.” Thank you, Fred, for everything you bring to the organization. You have changed our lives.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Report from 4th Catacoustic Scholarship winners, Stephen Goist and Cole Guillien

In 2014 Catacoustic was fortunate enough to be able to award two scholarships, to two young music students to purchase their own viols. Here's what both of them have been up to this past year.

From Stephen:
Thanks to the generous scholarship from Catacoustic Consort last spring, my early music life has started to blossom. The scholarship allowed me to purchase a beautiful seven-string bass viol and it has been a catalyst for many opportunities in the early music community this year. In September and April, I was fortunate enough to participate in two of Catacoustic's performances, "He Who Sings, Prays Twice" and "The Turn of the Year," both of which were monumentally inspiring experiences. In February, I participated in two different events as part of Cincinnati's Early Music Festival: a set of four intimate concerts of assorted viol trios in local public libraries, and a rousing performance of "The Cries of London" by Orlando Gibbons during Classical Revolution at Northside Tavern. While wrapping up my master's degree in viola performance at CCM, I played in two viol consort performances as a part of the Early Music Lab and played the bass lines for a student performance of Strozzi's "Hor che Apollo." It has been quite a busy year!

I am so excited for what the future has coming my way. This June, I will be attending Oberlin's Baroque Performance Institute to dive a little deeper into the world of early music. I look forward to further exploring an area of music that I have loved for so long in such an intense, focused, high-level atmosphere. In the fall, I will be starting a Doctor of Musical Arts in viola performance, and I hope to incorporate early music studies into my curriculum as I continue with my professional and personal development in music.

I owe a huge thanks to Catacoustic Consort for their generous scholarship. Purchasing my own instrument has served as a gateway to so many opportunities, and it wouldn't have been possible without their help. I'd also like to thank my teacher, Annalisa Pappano, who has been such a strong source of support, inspiration, and encouragement over the past several years!

And from Cole:
I am so fortunate to have been one of the 2014 recipients of the Catacoustic scholarship. With the money received, I was able to purchase my first viola da gamba. In the past three years, I have grown increasingly close to this instrument. Its music, its history, its society, from my first encounter to the present, have been a source of intrigue and delight. 

Experiencing the cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri with Catacoustic this fall was a remarkable experience that I will treasure always. It was a privilege to work with Annalisa and her colleagues on such a fantastic work. 

At the moment, I am pursuing a music career, however small, focusing on bringing the gamba and Baroque performance practice to the rural Midwest (my home). I am excited to bring the fascination I have developed for this music and culture to an equally interested group in eastern Iowa.

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