Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An Early Music Christmas – Gift Ideas and Holiday Concerts

As the holiday season approaches, keep early music at the top of your wish list. The top of my list would of course be Catacoustic’s CD as a gift for friends and family, and at $10 per CD, that is a great deal. Another gift that people have purchased in the past is Catacoustic tickets. You will receive a discount for this gift offer, too! You may buy six tickets for the price of five. E-mail for more information.

If you would like to hear early music performed on period instruments, I strongly recommend a drive up to Indianapolis to hear the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra play Handel’s Messiah. Friends of Catacoustic will recognize Sherezade Panthaki (sang in February 2008 Couperin’s Lamentations of Jeremiah and January 2008 Music from the Movie concerts) as one of the soloists. There are two performances:
#1 is 7:30PM on Friday, December 5 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Indianapolis (corner of North Meridian and 33rd Streets)
#2 is 7:30PM on Saturday, December 6 at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church at 10655 Haverstick Road, Carmel, IN (northern suburb of Indianapolis)
Call 317.926.1346 for more information. Tickets are $25 preferred seating, $20 general, and $10 students.

If you are interested in a Christmas gift that will enlarge your library, I recommend the newly available DVD of Tous les Matins du Monde (All the Mornings of the World). Catacoustic performed a concert of the music from this movie last January. The DVD is available at

I have a substantial CD library of early music recordings, but I find that I end up listening to my favorites over and over. My picks are:

Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri performed by Les Voix Baroques on the ATMA label. Catacoustic soprano Catherine Webster is singing on this stunning album. This music is lush and incredibly moving.

Cavalieri’s Lamentations performed by Le Poeme Harmonique on the Alpha label.

Nova Metamorfosi performed by Le Poeme Harmonique on the Alpha label. Between these two recordings of this talented group, I have practically worn out my CD player!

La Tarantella performed by L’Arpeggiata on the Alpha label. This CD is all Tarantellas, which is a type of dance music that was done to ward off or in response to the bite of the tarantella spider. This is really wild, fun music!

Regardless of what music you have in your life, have a lovely holiday season!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Live Music versus Recordings

In today’s busy world, where both time and money are precious commodities, why should a person participate in live music concerts?
Recordings are wonderful additions to everyday life. They can be educational tools. CDs can help one relax and provide a background of soothing or exciting music to match or enhance one’s mood. However, the highly edited, embellished or smoothed-over nature of modern recordings can make live performances seem unnecessary.
A live concert allows you to be a part of the process. Chamber music, especially, affords this opportunity. Intimate venues and the relationship between audience and performer offer a dimension that I never knew could exist until I started Catacoustic. This is not something that one learns in music school. I have also discovered the importance of having a dialogue in concerts. Catacoustic’s audience has seen us grow from a small acorn to a healthy oak tree. I think that they feel part of that process, growing with us – in knowledge of music and history, and as active observers.
Live concerts have energy and a sense of spontaneity. You never know what to expect.
As a performer, I much prefer to play in front of an audience than in a recording studio. The music is much more exciting when I have the adrenaline of the live performance.
One uses more senses at a concert: sight (body language, dress, and facial expression), sound, venue, and background contextual information combine with the whole experience to paint a multi-dimensional imaginary picture of the music.
Finally, when I attend a concert, all my attention is on the music. Music is not in the background while I am doing work around the house. Instead, I am savoring each moment as the music brought to life – the interplay of the notes, the physical space, and the dynamic between the performer and the audience, and being part of the process.
What are your thoughts about live music versus recordings?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Musician Spotlight: Webb Wiggins, Harpsichordist

Webb Wiggins will be the featured musician in Catacoustic's upcoming concert, "Awakening of the Harpsichord." The following is an interview with this exceptional musician:

First, how would you describe the harpsichord?

Essentially, a harpsichord is an inherently un-expressive instrument! There is no sustain or dynamic variation in the sound. There are subtle differences in the timbre of the sound if there is more than one set of strings. The strings are plucked by a plectra (originally of crow quill, now usually delrin). The variety of length of note and the variety of articulation is how we create the illusion of dynamic and expression: ie, a longer note implies and is perceived as louder than a shorter note; a note sounding out of silence implies and is perceived as louder than a note sounding while first note is still sounding.

What drew you to early music?

It was the specific difference between consonant and dissonant harmonies. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries most music uses traditional harmony (that which we still enjoy in most popular music of today). When a note foreign to other notes in a chord is introduced, dissonance occurs. These dissonances can occur between chords (weak beats and softer dissonances) or simultaneous with the introduction of a chord (strong beats and louder dissonances). This 'pain and relief effect' truly moves me.

What are some of the types of early music, such as ballads, dance, etc.?

Many new forms were created in baroque music: toccatas, cantatas, opera, dance suites to name a few. The first four are of Italian origin; dance suites are essentially French-based. Most baroque music is either specifically or loosely based on dance rhythms, many from much earlier times. Non-dance-based music is perhaps the other major area - improvisational: pieces either truly improvised (in church services or as preludes to dance pieces). Aside from dances, most other forms of baroque music are multi-sectional, having various styles and moods in one longer piece; the precursor to multi-movement works (sonatas, symphonies, etc).

Tell us how you approach the upcoming “Awakening” concert.

This is a little different from most concerts I play in that I'm essentially choosing most of the music. Unlike most of the ensembles with whom I play, you'll probably hear more seventeenth century than eighteenth century music, since I'm drawn to it, and I think I communicate it successfully.

Who are your favorite composers?

Johann Jacob Froberger (1616-1667) is my favorite. I have the greatest respect for JS Bach of course, and there are many composers I adore who are not baroque. But if I limit this to keyboard music, including Froberger, there's Louis Couperin, Dietrich Buxtehude, Jan Pietersson Sweelinck, Girolami Frescobaldi - all seventeenth century composers. I also have to say I like the decadent French composers at the end of the baroque: Jacques Duphly, Claude Balbastre, Armand-Louis Couperin.

What single piece of music is your favorite?

Can't even begin to imagine. Often I discover my fave in the midst of preparing for a concert, then it's replaced by another piece at the next concert.......

Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers?

I'm very honored to be asked to give this program. I've enjoyed working with Catacoustic in the past and look forward to becoming introduced to Catacoustic's new harpsichord.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

From the first minute I held a treble viola da gamba as a fifteen-year-old high school student, I knew I was meant to play this instrument. As a former violinist, my preference for the treble end of the spectrum led me to favor the treble viol and pardessus de viole. And, a music history class research paper in university led me to teach myself to play the lirone, which I absolutely adore.
The viol has offered me many wonderful opportunities to travel, meet interesting people, and create special bonds of friendship through music. I have found my voice with this instrument and am able to express myself in new and exciting ways. The viol hasenabled me to combine my love of reading and scholarship with my enjoyment of creating things. As a child, I was always organizing the neighborhood kids to put on shows for our families. I still remember performing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” as a kid, dressed up in a gaudy yellow satin-like dress, a terrible black wig, and silver sequin-encrusted high heel shoes – thinking I must have been just like Marilyn Monroe...
I have been privileged to be able to incorporate a knack for envisioning exciting programs, a love for developing a relationship with my audience, and a passion for the viola da gamba in my ensemble, the Catacoustic Consort. When I decided to devote my life to the viol, I had no illusions that this would be an easy life choice or a career path. I knew that if I wanted work as a viol player, I must create the work. Fortunately, along the way I learned skills in running a non-profit organization that have enabled music to be the focal point of my life.
Several years ago, Catacoustic received donations of eight violas da gamba to use as rental instruments. This made it possible for people in Cincinnati to learn to play the viol and find their own voice through this magnificent instrument. One early music group was started as a result – the Noyse Merchants. Additionally, this is my second year teaching viola da gamba at the prestigious University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
My daily life as a professional viol player is varied: teaching, practicing, and rehearsing for concerts. In addition, for Catacoustic much of my time is spent writing program notes for our concerts, writing grants proposals and blog entries, working on budgets, and meeting with our board of directors. I have been honored to have the viol in my life and to be able to share it with others.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

James Lambert, Local Viola da Gamba Player

James Lambert (Viola da gamba; Cincinnati, OH) is Associate Principal Bassist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He is a graduate of UC-CCM and was a member of the North Carolina Symphony before moving to Cincinnati in 1987. Jim studied viola da gamba with Brent Wissick and Wendy Gillespie and has attended the Amherst Early Music Festival. He has performed as a solo viol player with various orchestras and has played with Apollo’s Cabinet.

We interviewed Jim about his upcoming performance with Catacoustic Consort. The concert, “A New Musical Cosmos,” will be performed on Saturday, October 11, 7:30 pm at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Clifton, and again on Sunday, October 12, 3:00 pm at the St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Glendale.

CC: First, would you describe the viola da gamba?

JL: The viola da gamba is a bowed stringed instrument which was developed in Spain and Italy in the early 1500s. The name means literally "viola of the leg," to distinguish it from the other family of bowed instruments, viola da braccio, or "viola of the arm (the violin family)."

The gamba family is characterized by having 6 strings with frets around the neck, and by holding the bow with the hand under the stick, very much like the bowing technique of some Middle Eastern instruments. The sound can be described as quiet but penetrating and intense.

There are three main sizes of the gamba, corresponding to the ranges of the human voice, and there are some less common sizes larger and smaller than these. All sizes are held between the legs, as the name indicates. There is a huge amount of solo music, especially for the bass instrument, and music for two to six viols of various sizes.

What drew you to early music?

In my “other life” I am a double bassist, and some of the very first music I played in my school orchestra was music of the Baroque era, the "alla hornpipe" movement from Handel's Water Music, and the "Halleluja" chorus from The Messiah. Musically speaking, I have felt the most at home with this period.

Three things about the music immediately attracted me: first, its pleasing melodies, second, its compact form, somewhat like a well-rounded musical argument, and third (and not least), the importance of the bass line, which is the foundation of the entire musical structure.
Later, thanks to public radio and my local public library, I discovered music of the Renaissance and Medieval eras. But it wasn't until my late 20s that I got my first viola da gamba, and from then on my commitment was assured. I could actually participate, instead of observing from the outside.

What are some of the types of early music?

One could speak of two large divisions which hold true for modern music - sacred and secular. Within the area of sacred music there is of course music for the worship service, based on biblical or otherwise liturgical texts. Some examples are Bach's Mass in B Minor or Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers. There is also a body of instrumental music for church use, such as for preludes or processionals. Some examples would be Corelli's Trio Sonatas or Gabrieli's Canzonas for brass choir.

In the realm of secular music you can find music for dancing, singing, military, ceremonial, and particularly from the Renaissance onward, a kind of recreational music for people to get together to play for pleasure. This latter could include madrigals, dance music, or a sort of free form music called fantasias. Around 1700 the instrumental concerto emerged, and of course the most popular example of this is Bach's "Brandenburg" Concertos. As you know, there was no recorded music until the late 1800s, so if one wanted to hear music, one would have to learn to sing or play an instrument, or go to wherever the music happened to be.

Tell us how you approach the upcoming "New Musical Cosmos" concert.

Well, first of all, I have to practice this difficult music! The featured composer, John Jenkins, was a virtuoso of the viola da gamba, and he wrote idiomatically for the instrument and exploited its capabilities to the fullest extent.

The musicians who are taking part in the concert won't actually meet until a few days before the concert, so we each have to be prepared. Then it's just a matter of fitting the individual parts together into the whole. Sometimes I like to listen to a recording to get a sense of how the piece goes, but much of what we're playing has not been recorded, so I will have a look at the full score. That way I can see the others' parts and learn in advance what I must listen for.

Who are your favorite composers?

J. S. Bach, Claudio Monteverdi, G. P. de Palestrina, G. F. Handel, Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner, for starters.

What single piece of music is your favorite?

Can I narrow it down to 100 favorites? I've played or heard literally thousands of pieces in my life; there's so much out there that I really like. Sometimes I think it's whatever I happen to be playing at the moment. But if backed into a corner, I would probably say Bach's Passacaglia in C Minor BWV 582, for organ - a masterpiece of sonic architecture, a cathedral in sound, and of course, a great bass line!

Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers?

The received wisdom suggests that music "began" with Bach in the early 1700s, that all music before him was a kind of precursor. That is certainly the attitude in the mainstream world of classical music. But there is actually about a thousand years of music extant before then! This music is also full of the passion, devotion, doubt, joy, anger, the whole range of human emotions, that we find in music of more recent times. The music we will play in the upcoming concert represents some of the best of instrumental chamber music of the 1600s. I'm hoping that listeners will find in this old music something new and exciting.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The “Other” Oxford a Key Player in Viol Revival Movement

In the late 1960’s, the English Consort of Viols came to the small university town of Oxford, Ohio. Those of you who have experienced a Midwest winter know that snowstorms can disrupt a concert, which is what happened to the Consort. They were snowed in during a concert tour at the University of Illinois. This changed the course of numerous lives. The Chair of Miami University’s Music Department, Everett Nelson, knew Richard Nickolson, one of the viol players in the ensemble. Mr. Nelson met him while studying English viol fantasies in London. Mr. Nelson brought the Consort to Oxford to wait out the storm. Due to the bad winter weather, they had a lot of time to read consorts and to play beautiful music together. They did this in the "green room," where students and faculty could listen. The students and music teachers at Miami University were so impressed by the sound of the viols and the quality of the music that many of them wanted to learn to play the viol.
The university’s cello instructor Liz Potteiger and violin instructor Elizabeth Lane were particularly enamored with the viol and traveled to London to study with the founding members of the Consort (Marco Pallas and Richard Nickolson) in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Elizabeth Lane still vividly remembers delightful days spent in their flat playing music with these gentlemen, afterwards enjoying cups of tea. Miami University eventually purchased a consort of Michael Heale viols. This made it possible for many faculty members, college students, community amateurs, and even high school students to begin playing the viol. Liz Potteiger required all her cello students to study the viol in a special viol instruction course. She had as many as three consort classes. Many of Elizabeth Lane’s violin students played gamba, as well.
Love of the viol is contagious, and enthusiasm spread throughout the country from this small Ohio town. Elizabeth Lane’s brother (Warren Walker), a cellist at Kansas State University, heard about the viols at Miami University and traveled to London to study viol da gamba. He came back with a consort of viols made by Michael Heale and later bought a Kessler bass.
After the community of Oxford started their viol activity, they contacted people throughout Ohio to play together, including Suzanne Ferguson and Patricia Olds. They started one of the first Viola da Gamba Society chapters in Ohio, involving viol players from Columbus, Yellow Springs, Kentucky, Cleveland, and Oberlin, who met to play consorts. They spent their weekends in churches and homes playing and sharing potluck meals.
Liz Potteiger passed away in March 1998 from emphysema, and the viol tradition in Oxford sadly came to an end. The instruments were stored in closets and were neglected for many years until recently. Several years ago I met Elizabeth Lane, who facilitated the long-term loan of these instruments to my nonprofit chamber music ensemble, the Catacoustic Consort. The Viola da Gamba Society provided funding to have the instruments repaired, so the local community may use them. We are currently recreating a renaissance of the viol in southwestern Ohio through a new generation of viol players, a result of these resurrected instruments and the guidance of the Catacoustic Consort.
As we look to the future of our beloved instrument, it is important to remember our past and the passion of these early music revivalist trailblazers. I am honored to continue the tradition of the viola da gamba in Ohio.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Harpsichord visit...

In the fall of 2007 the Catacoustic Consort received a grant from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and the Abraham, Katie Eleanor, and Natalie Feld Memorial Fund for the purchase of a harpsichord. I was lucky enough to find an instrument that was in fine playing shape thanks to the repair work of Ben Bechtel in Columbus, Ohio. We have since used our new instrument in several concerts and are excited about the programming possibilities that this instrument will afford us - and other music ensembles in the region.
I received a phone call recently that the maker of the harpsichord, James Campbell was in town along with Martha Folts, the woman for whom he made the instrument. In addition, they were with Nina Key, who helped build the instrument. They all came over tomy home to visit this instrument, which was made in 1982 right here in Cincinnati. Soon after making this harpsichord, Mr. Campbell stopped making instruments to become an Episcopalian priest. It was a pleasure to have Jim, Nina, and Martha over. Martha was practically in tears, as she said it was like visiting a family member. She said that the sound has improved greatly and is even richer than she remembered.
Catacoustic is presenting a harpsichord inauguration concert in November 2008, and we hope to have Mr. Campbell back to offer a pre-concert talk to talk about being a harpsichord pioneer in Cincinnati in the 1970's and 80's. Believe it or not, there was a lot of harpsichord activity in the city back then. A historical keyboard society was formed with numerous members. The society hosted conventions, even bringing the famous harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt to Cincinnati to perform and lecture. (Incidentally, Leonhardt performed on Catacoustic's harpsichord!) Noted harpsichord maker Ben Bechtel was also in Cincinnati making instruments, in addition to Larry Brown, the well-known lute maker. Cincinnati played a key role in the revival of early instrument making!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Summer Concerts on the Road

June 6, 2008
Summers are a time of purification after a busy concert season with Catacoustic. It is a time of anticipation and creative renewal. I often find myself on the road, playing concerts with other ensembles or teaching at early music workshops. This summer has been no exception. In May, I traveled to Los Angeles to play on the Ventura Music Festival with the Concord Ensemble. Concord is an early music vocal ensemble that formed when I was a music student at Indiana University’s Early Music Institute. The core members of the group are some of my dearest friends, and those of you who are regular Catacoustic concert attendees would recognize Scott Graff, Pablo CorĂ¡, and Dan Carberg from the singers. I am proud to say that the program we performed was inspired by two separate Catacoustic programs: Amore (Monteverdi’s 7th & 8th book of madrigals), and The Sirens of Ferrara (17th-century Italian music for three sopranos). How exciting to know that our programming in Cincinnati is influencing the tide of early music programming across the country! Another musician in this concert was Daniel Zuluaga on theorbo, who played in our January 2008 concert of music from Tous les Matins du Monde. This was a magical week of music making, eating fabulous food, long talks about music and life, and enjoying the change of pace of life in the exciting city of Los Angeles.
June 24, 2008
I just returned from concerts in Oregon with one of my dearest friends, Joanna Blendulf. Daniel Zuluaga played in this concert, as well. This world of early music professionals is a small one! We performed music for two pardessus de viole (the smallest member of the viola da gamba family – a hybrid combination of the gamba and violin). Joanna and I have known each other since we were teenagers, when we first met each other at Interlochen Arts Camp. A lovely friendship and musical partnership has since blossomed. Joanna and I have a very special musical partnership, which one is fortunate to ever find in life. Our musical ensemble could be compared to two friends who have known each other for years. When they get together to talk, the conversation flows naturally and freely, with inspiring things being discussed. People in the audience commented, "It was like there was one person with two bows!" I would have to agree. Playing with Joanna is inspiring. We make each other into better musicians. Our concerts were in Eugene and Portland, and we will present similar programs in Cincinnati and San Francisco in April 2009. Our week of music making led us to decide to record this musical program. So, you can look forward to a new Catacoustic CD in the upcoming year!