Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Holiday Gift Suggestions

Annalisa Pappano, Artistic Director of the Catacoustic Consort
I am so excited for the holidays this year. Here are my suggestions for early music gift ideas for yourself or friends on your gift-giving lists:

The Caldwell Collection of Viols: A Life Together in the Pursuit of Beauty: Catacoustic’s season-opener concert this year featured some of the instruments in the newly-published book about the Caldwell-Meints viol collection in Oberlin, Ohio. This is the second-largest private collection of historical violas da gamba in the world, and possibly the most exquisite! This book is filled with beautiful photographs and personal anecdotes of how the collection was assembled. It is now available at Joseph-Beth Bookstore in the Rookwood Pavilion (

Time & Joint Experiences:
Give the gift of live music with Catacoustic Consort concert tickets! (

Make it your New Year’s resolution to learn to play the viola da gamba this year! The annual Conclave of the Viola da Gamba Society of America is going to be in Oxford, Ohio at Miami University this July. Admission for beginners and the use of a loaner instrument are FREE-OF-CHARGE!!! You can commute or stay on campus with meals with the other attendees! (more information at

CD Recordings: I can’t get enough of the viol duo Musicke and Mirth. Their recording of 18th century viol duos “Feuer und Bravour” and their lyra viol program “Musicke for Two Lyra Viols” are both fabulous.

New York Composer Gregory Spears takes his inspiration from early music (see recent blog post). His CD “Requiem” is available at
I strongly recommend this recording, and Catacoustic’s own Larry Lipnik (played in last season’s Lachrimae and this April’s consort program) is playing on the CD!

Regardless of how you celebrate the holidays, I wish you a lovely season and look forward to seeing you at the next Catacoustic concert!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Conversation with Gregory Spears

Annalisa had the pleasure of meeting with NYC-based composer Gregory Spears recently. His opera Fellow Travelers was featured in Cincinnati Opera’s Opera Fusion: New Works workshop last week. She met him during the workshop and learned that he has a passion for early music and working with performers who specialize in early music.
Spears studied at Eastman and later went to the Royal Academy in Copenhagen on a Fulbright. One summer he worked at the Spoleto Festival as a stagehand for a Baroque orchestra when they were performing Cavalli’s Giasone with Harry Bickett. That’s when he fell in love with early music. Afterwards he got his Master’s degree at Yale, then a Ph.D. at Princeton. He currently teaches theory and composition at the Third Street Music School Settlement, which is the oldest community music school in NYC. This spring he will teach a class at Princeton called “Music and Madness.”
Most of Spears’ time is spent writing music on commission. He was recently in Miami, where he was commissioned to complete the Mozart Requiem for Seraphic Fire, a group who frequently performs early music. He also did a restoration of a Prokofiev ballet (under the guidance of musicologist Simon Morrison) for the Mark Morris Dance Company, is completing the opera Wolf in Skins for a Baroque orchestra, composed a commissioned song for Opera America, and is now finishing the opera Fellow Travelers.  One of his pieces will be performed on December 10 in Cincinnati by the Jack Quartet for Chamber Music Cincinnati as well. (
The following is paraphrased from their conversation.

My fantasy is to join the forces of new music and early music. This is the moment to do it! 

What is it about new music and early music that works for me? The revival of Handel opera and the excitement around newer operas like those of John Adams coincided, and their listeners had something in common. They liked a different type of drama and experience than traditional Verdi opera.  Today there are many fine early musicians, and it is less of a niche. You are also more likely to find musicians who can play Baroque period music AND Wagner AND contemporary music. Musicians have to be more versatile these days. There is never a cultural barrier in working with early musicians. They are looking for phrasing and affect of music, rather than waiting for words on the page (like dolce) to tell them how to play. It is thrilling to give musicians permission to connect with a new piece, as if it were an old piece.

I love working with singers. There is a special something about the type of sound of an early music singer. It’s paradoxical: The voice can sound almost like an electronic instrument with very little vibrato, but at the same time it has a deep soul.  The singer’s relationship to text is different too—the practice of musique mesurée was a fascinating moment in music history.  I am also very interested in the medieval practice of chant and in the use of the drone with music. The result of all these elements is music as both text and pure sound continuum.  

Period instruments are also great, and working with them is a very “vocal” experience. The challenge is that you really have to have the right venue. Period instruments are completed by their performing space. They collaborate with their acoustic. A black box theatre is not as successful as a live acoustical space.

What are the challenges of writing for early music instruments? Well, for instance you can’t write for a piano without considering what was written for it and why. That conversation with the history of an instrument interests me. You can figure who you are by looking through the lens of tradition.
I like working with traditional liturgical texts. While I am not an overtly religious person, I like working out of that tradition. Liturgical music has an electric charge - the infinite versus the finite (the human).

For more information on Gregory Spears’ music, visit his website at

Friday, November 8, 2013

Orpheus' Lyre

Charles II

The next Catacoustic concert will continue a tour of 17th-century England that we began last spring.  You may remember the concert in Terrace Park of music by John Dowland, and how in peaceful 1607 he could comfortably compose music of gorgeous longing and transcendent melancholy.  But what happened next?  The Tudors gave way to the Stuarts, the Stuarts thoroughly alienated themselves from their people, and so began the English Civil War.  The appalling story of this catastrophic war which was fought between 1642 and 1651, but whose tensions began many years before and whose fallout lasted decades after, must be told elsewhere; for now let us reduce all the facts to this one: almost one million people died in England, Scotland, and Ireland, out of a population of 7.5 million.

Oliver Cromwell
 But the music didn’t stop.  We live in wartime ourselves—we know that the need for self-expression becomes greater, if anything, in times of stress.  England produced many great composers during these benighted decades, and it is their music we will hear December 7.  Our tour of this tragic century in England will conclude in April with a concert dedicated entirely to the music of William Lawes, the soldier-composer.  

If peacetime gave us beautiful melancholic music, what did wartime produce?  Adrenaline and the sense that each day could be one’s last gave the music energy and made the composers bold.  Born of turbulent times, the music was experimental, even avant-garde for the day.  Some of it was light-hearted and comic, to suit people seeking an hour’s relief from their distressing daily lives.  An example of this is The Twelve Wonders of the World, a set of satirical songs based on stock characters by John Maynard, c 1577-1633.  Maynard’s fluffy satires were nevertheless ahead of their time in their instrumental arrangements.  

Christopher Simpson
Christopher Simpson, 1602-1669, on the other hand, was a dedicated teacher, and wrote the most important instructional books for viol ever—they are still used by students today, 350 years after their publication.  But Simpson’s outwardly dull books, with titles like A Compendium of Practical Musick, were actually filled with virtuosic pieces, startling in their creativity.  John Jenkins, 1592-1678, was an industrious, religious man, who fled to the countryside during the war, where he taught and composed prolifically for the viol.  The Oxford Companion to Music has this to say about this sober,
conventional man: “The best of his music is distinguished by its lyrical invention, emotional intensity, and adventurous tonal schemes, and his first-hand knowledge of the viol allowed him to exploit its expressive and technical capabilities to the full.”

Some of these composers were pro-Parliament, some of them were Royalists. Some wrote light music, others more serious.  But what all
these men had in common was that they sojourned in cataclysm, and
tried to make sense of their experiences through vibrant,
ground-breaking music. 

Which brings us to the lyra viol.  This is an odd little off-shoot of the viol family, a chordal instrument in a family of melody-makers.  Part viol, part lirone, it is capable of playing both a tune and its accompanying chords.  Music for it is written not on the staff, but in tablature.  Strings are often retuned to create the harmonic combinations they were looking for.  (Remember Jenkins’ “adventurous tonal schemes”?)  The resulting sound is warm, complex, and rich beyond all expectation—an entire orchestra speaking in one voice.

Lyra Viol
Lyra viol was popular 300 years ago, especially in England. Perhaps an anomalous instrument was necessary to describe a world gone mad.  But very few people today have taken it up.  The music you will hear at this concert, therefore, is very rarely performed, and is far outside the mainstream of Baroque viol music. An ensemble of extraordinary musicians, viols, lutes, and voices, will assemble at the beautiful Indian Hill Church to take us to another place and time, not so  different from our own. 

7:30pm Saturday, December 7, 2013
Indian Hill Church, 6000 Drake Road, Cincinnati (Indian Hill), OH  45243
Ample parking is available in church parking lot.

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, September 26, 2013

A Treasure Trove of Instruments

Catacoustic Consort kicks off its 13th season on October 25, with an absolutely unique event for the city of Cincinnati. In performance with Catacoustic will be Catharina Meints, one of the great viola da gamba virtuosos in the world. To have an opportunity to hear her play would be reason enough to celebrate, but something else makes this appearance unmissable.

Meints is the owner and curator of the internationally famous Caldwell Collection of Viols, one of the most important collections of antique instruments in the world. She and her husband, the late James Caldwell, spent decades acquiring, restoring, and performing on viols built in the 17th and 18th centuries.  These instruments were built during the height of the viol’s popularity, by craftsmen as well known as Niccolò Amati and Joachim Tielke. This was a time when the sound of the instrument was not the only consideration—the physical object itself was considered a work of art, lovingly worked in etchings and inlay, sometimes tattooed with pictures or maps. The collection is usually housed in a climate-controlled environment in Oberlin, Ohio, but for the first time in years Ms. Meints will be bringing several of them here to Cincinnati. They will not be on display, for us to look at behind the glass—they will be played right in front of us. Unlike most museum instrument collections, these are kept alive by frequent playing.

Meints has recently published a beautiful book about the collection. The Caldwell Collection of Viols is packed with gorgeous photographs, a memoir of a lifetime of collecting, and an audio CD of each and every one being played. Copies of this large-format, multimedia production will also be available for purchase at the concert.  

This event is part of the Constella Festival. Don’t miss this extraordinary opportunity to see and hear one of the greatest instrument collections anywhere. It’s happening only here in Cincinnati.

And while you’re at it, why not pick up tickets for the entire Catacoustic season? This concert is only the first of an unprecedented series of concert gems, including guest artists from Germany and Italy, vocal and instrumental music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and a tour through some of the most beautiful venues in the city. Tickets may be purchased online at 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Catacoustic's Twelfth Season: It was a very good year

The 12th season of the Catacoustic Consort is winding down, and it’s time for a look back on perhaps the most successful season so far.  With the energetic leadership of a new Board—including an active, enthusiastic Advisory Board—we witnessed lots of firsts this year.  We may one day look back on the 12th season as the tipping point—the year Cincinnati truly became a national center for early music, with Catacoustic leading the way.

The season had so many highlights.  Back in October, Catacoustic performed in Middletown for Middfest, and then brought that show to Cincinnati for the Constella Festival as well.  It was an exciting chance to welcome Elizabeth Motter to the stage on Baroque Triple Harp, in a beautiful concert of French Baroque music.  

In December we enjoyed the spectacular Stabat Mater concert.  Soprano Youngmi Kim set the rafters ringing with church music from 17th century Rome.  For the first time, Catacoustic worked with a stage director, Omer Ben-Saedia, and the result was an incredible atmosphere and, to Artistic Director Annalisa Pappano, the musical highlight of the year.  

In February Cincinnati welcomed Matthias Maute, recorder virtuoso extraordinaire, with record-setting attendance.  If recorder were better known, Maute would be as acclaimed as Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, or any other superstar of a modern instrument.  His musicianship is among the best you will ever hear on any instrument, and he got an electric energy out of the audience that evening.  Not coincidentally, the surprisingly large local recorder scene turned out in force, and they were energized as well.  It’s clearly time for a re-birth of interest in this venerable instrument in our city.

Next up was another first—a collaboration with another local music ensemble.  The March concert with concert:nova of music inspired by Shakespeare was a huge hit with the two large audiences that were actually cheering by the end.  The Mercantile Library was a beautiful venue, and Jennifer Joplin of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company led us deep into a world outside our daily lives.  

We wrapped up with the annual candlelight concert.  This was an intense, complicated program of all John Dowland, and the audience was right with the performers the whole way.  Annalisa felt like she was playing with the best consort of viols of her life.  Another Shakespearean, Jeremy Dubin, helped put it all together.  And a Project Grant from ArtsWave helped make it possible.

Some spectacular music was made, right here in Cincinnati, that people in other cities may never get a chance to hear.  The rapidly growing audiences show how much this fact is appreciated.  Cincinnati is no longer just for Beethoven and Brahms—it’s clearly for Bach and Buxtehude as well.  Viol consorts perform at church services.  Historic instruments like harpsichords and Baroque organs are in use across town.  Early Music workshops have large enrollments.  Amateurs gather in each other’s homes to sing and play. The city’s universities are proving grounds for Renaissance choral music, Baroque opera, medieval chant.  Cincinnati Shakespeare Company recites at Catacoustic’s concerts, and Catacoustic plays for their productions in return.  It’s happening all around us.

Which leads us to another first for the year:  The Cincinnati Early Music Festival.  This February saw a ground-breaking attempt to corral the remarkable numbers of early music performers into a platform where they could be showcased properly.  The month was packed with events of all kinds, different venues, unusual instruments, music from a wide range of centuries.  Next year’s Festival, spearheaded by Catacoustic, is already in the planning stages.

This was also the third year for Catacoustic’s scholarship program.  The award this year went to Michael Zaret, who, after some years away, is returning to an old love:  the recorder.  We hope to hear great things from Michael going forward.

The real end of the season will be Memorial Day, May 27.  We are having our annual Yard Sale, the proceeds of which go toward the scholarship fund.  This year we will be on Upland, the most beautiful street in East Walnut Hills.  Please donate any goods looking for a new gig, or come by and find new treasures.  

Then head home and start counting down the days till the 13th season.  It’s going to be great!