Monday, December 21, 2015

Report from the 5th Catacoustic scholarship winner: Nelson Velez

In May 2015 Catacoustic awarded its 5th annual Early Music Scholarship to Nelson Velez, a Cincinnati resident who wanted to resume his avocation on the Early Horn. Here's his report on his award year: 

I had studied Natural Horn at IU Bloomington’s Early Music Institute from 1996-1999, but my career took me away from music.  My passion has never left me, though, and the Catacoustic Scholarship has helped push me forward again.

 The Natural Horn is a very hard instrument to master. It is the precursor to what most people know today as a French Horn. The horn started as an animal horn used to make sounds for religious practices or war signals. Later, it was made of brass and formed into a ring, so that a hunter could wear it on horseback and play signals announcing different parts of the hunt.

Early valveless horns such as hunting horns have a very limited number of notes available to them. The tonalities of the instruments depend on the length of their tubing. Regardless of the size of the tube, all horns have a set number of notes that can be played and a lot of notes that just do not exist on the instrument. This is the Harmonic Series, showing which notes exist on the tube (in black) and which need to be modified (in blue).:

In the early Baroque era hunting horns were used in operas or plays as props. But slowly horn players started experimenting with placing a hand inside the bell of the horn, thus making the instrument play notes that are not naturally available. This drastically changed the sound of the instrument Obviously the sounds of those notes are very different from the naturally occurring open notes played without being “stopped”.
The Baroque era saw an explosion of repertoire that added more and more of the notes not found in the harmonic series. Early baroque music mostly used open notes, but as musicians became more proficient at playing other notes with their hands in the bells the repertoire was expanded.

Composers in the classical period knew which notes would sound muffled, which notes would sound bright and which notes would sound brassy because of the hand movements. Composers used this variation of colors in the orchestra. To the modern listener, at first the sound of a natural horn may seem strange, since some notes have a different color or “body” than others. But once they realize and accept that the instrument is meant to sound that way, they can learn to appreciate the variety of sounds. This is a part of my passion—to help today’s listener appreciate the beauty of early music.

I think the Natural Horn is an amazing instrument. It is hard to master, but full of character and musical color. It can sound sweet and small or big and broad.

As an early Music Natural performance major one must learn how to play the different variations of the horn starting with a Hunting Horn, Baroque Horn, Classical Horn, Romantic Horn, Piston Horn to a Valve Horn.
Hunting Horn

Baroque Horn

Classical Horn
Because of the Catacoustic Consort Early Music scholarship I was able to attend the 2015 IU Natural horn workshop followed by a Natural Trumpet making course.

Both courses were very educational and entertaining. During the Natural Horn workshop I was able to play on a classical horn as well as 2 versions of baroque horns (with and without vent holes). I played some solo pieces ranging from easy to quite complex, as well as playing in small ensembles. It was a great experience to play with people who had never seen or heard a natural horn as well as with people who are professionals. Playing with the various levels of musicians helped a lot.

The Natural Trumpet making class gave me a whole new appreciation for the workmanship, time and effort that goes into making an instrument which looks so simple but in reality is extremely complex. It was a week of sweat and aching muscles. I highly recommend both courses for anyone interested in early brass instruments. Richard Seraphinoff is a great teacher, mentor, and friend. Both courses resulted in great early music networking and new friends.

I have recently ordered a natural horn. My former professor Richard Seraphinoff is not only a professor at IU’s Historical Music Institute, but he is also one of the world’s most renowned makers of historical horn replicas. The body of my Halari Replica Natural Horn has been completed and is in the process of having the bell painted by an artist. The painting of the bell is not just a decoration; it also protects the inside of the bell of the horn from the sweat, oil and dirt that will accumulate when the hand is placed inside the bell. The
The finished horn
crooks should be completed in late December or early January and I am eager to have the instrument so that I can get back to work. I know it will take some time to rebuild the musical career I had left behind. I am looking forward to collaborating with Cincinnati’s early music ensembles and musicians as well as other around the nation.

Cincinnati has a growing number of early music groups with a lot of talented and eager musicians. I hope to become a part of the growing Early Music movement in this great city. I hope to see Cincinnati become well known for its early music as well as its current classical music and artistic scene. Early music is my passion. For me, it is the best way to “travel in time” and hear music as it would have sounded when it was premiered and to hear what the composer and public of the era would have heard.  I want to share this love and appreciation.

Thanks Catacoustic Consort.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

About those venues…

St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Terrace Park

We receive many comments about the various venues that Catacoustic performs in for our concert series. Our annual Cincinnati Early Music Festival introduces even more spaces for musical performances. Many people comment that they like discovering new spaces and enjoy seeing the interesting architectural features – beautiful woodwork, stained glass windows – and exploring new corners of our city’s neighborhoods. What goes into a decision for a venue choice for Catacoustic season concerts, you may wonder?

Well, for early music, the acoustics are as important as the instruments themselves. The design of Baroque instruments means that the acoustics are an active collaborator in performance and are key for a successful concert. This is what leads us into churches, since their architects often had the same considerations in mind when designing those spaces. The acoustical properties of many churches, as well as seating size, are appropriate for the music we share.

Sometimes we hear from people who are uncomfortable attending concerts in churches, as they feel out of place in a sacred space that is outside their own beliefs. We understand this concern, and we continue to explore secular spaces for our events.

Occasionally, collaborations will drive the venue choice, as with our performance of Shakespeare-inspired music with concert:nova at the Mercantile Library, or the Cincinnati Opera collaborative Monteverdi concerts at 1st Presbyterian and our subsequent performances of La Calisto at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

Ambience is another factor. Our candlelight concerts at beautiful St. Thomas Church in Terrace Park have created wonderful multisensory experiences. We are certain that Old St. Mary’s Church will create a similar feel for our April concert of music for early trombones (sackbuts) and viols.

Old St. Mary's Church in Over-the-Rhine

One comment we have heard recently is that many of our audience members like to attend a concert that is near restaurants or bars for pre and post-concert meals and drinks, so all of our venues this year are within walking distance (or an easy drive) to such places.

Another important factor in our decision of venue is the relationship with the venue’s administrator or music director. A vision of collaboration from the venue’s viewpoint is paramount. I am grateful to the churches we work with who see it as their mission to open their doors to the community for events other than their own. We feel a special affinity for churches who believe that making their spaces available to the public for cultural events is an extension of their own ministry.

One comment since the beginning of our concert days here in Cincinnati is the discomfort of some church pews. (Perhaps churches want to keep their parishioners awake and alert!) We finally have addressed this issue by ordering Catacoustic seat cushions that are now available for purchase at our concerts.

I am quite excited about our venues this year. We performed for the second time at Trinity Episcopal in Covington, and the venue has a lovely acoustic and is a visual treat with glorious Tiffany stained glass windows. It is also a pleasure to bring our music to Covington. The gracious music director, John Deaver, teaches at CCM and is committed to having more music in his community.

Our second concert for this 15th season is at a new venue for us, St. Rose Church, in East End (Columbia Tusculum). The music director is Trevor Kroeger, who is working to make his church a musical destination. The space is beautiful!

St.Rose Church

Our upcoming lecture (“The Perilous Allures of Convent Singing”) as well as our third season concert featuring Baroque violin will be held at a favorite venue of mine, Church of the Advent in Walnut Hills. I am partial to this church, as it is in my neighborhood, and the church and community of Walnut Hills are extremely welcoming and supportive. The glorious woodwork and stained glass (more Tiffany windows!) are an added bonus.

Our fourth concert of the season is at another new venue for us: Old St. Mary’s in Over-the-Rhine. Old St. Mary’s was the triumphant venue last February for a Renaissance Mass, performed during the Early Music Festival. Music is an integral part of this church’s mission, and their music director is as eager to have us, as audiences are eager to discover all the hidden corners of Over-the-Rhine. The sanctuary is stunning, and it will transport us back in time for the other-worldly “Voice of God and Man.”

Finally, our Baroque opera will be held at First Unitarian Church in Avondale. You may know this spot as a regular venue for the Linton Chamber Music Series. The sanctuary platform (stage) is a flexible space, and the shape can change according to our needs. It boasts excellent parking and accessibility, and it is a beautiful space. There is sufficient room for the instruments as well as the singers, and the semi-staged choreography should work perfectly.

There you have it! Reasons why we choose the spaces we choose. We always appreciate hearing your feedback on our venues.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Conversation with Craig Monson

On November 11, Catacoustic will host Craig Monson, whose specialty is the history of women in 17th-century Italy, specifically those who were placed by their families in convents for political reasons related to the family dynasties, or because of a lack of an appropriate dowry. Without a religious vocation, these women often seized the chance the convents offered for education and artistic expression, becoming composers, poets, or performers. But some of them just got into trouble. Dr. Monson’s talk will pull back the curtain and give us a peek into the lives of some feisty, determined women who made the most of their lives, despite the restrictions imposed on them.

Then on November 13, Catacoustic will perform a concert featuring the music of these women, most of it composed either by them or especially for them.

We had a chance to talk to Dr. Monson in advance of his visit to Cincinnati.

What is your larger field of study?

Growing up I always thought I’d end up as an anthropologist; then, as a freshman in college, I became more interested in music history instead. Ever since I was in high school, my particular musical interest has always been Renaissance and Baroque music. (In 1960 I owned what I think was probably the only harpsichord north of the Bay Area in California.) In the 1970s and early ‘80s I concentrated on English music from the reign of Elizabeth I, particularly William Byrd, and edited four volumes of his collected works. But in the mid-1980s I shifted to Italy.

What got you interested in this specific topic, women immured without religious vocation?

While on vacation in Florence in 1986 I stumbled upon an unknown keyboard manuscript in an off-the-beaten-track museum and decided to write a learned article on it. On the basis of the binding decoration, a coat-of-arms on the cover, and an inscription on the back, I traced it to a convent in Bologna. In addition to keyboard arrangements of dozens of motets—that made sense—it also contained madrigals and French chansons—that didn’t make sense—including one with a substitute text that would translate something like, “You who have that little thing that delights and pleases so much, ah! Run your hand under my cassock and your cloak!” This did not quite jive with my impressions of 16th-century convent musicians (about which I knew nothing). I decided that music and female monasticism sounded like a very interesting topic. So I switched fields. (I had tenure by then, so I figured I could do whatever I pleased.) Since then, convent music has become something of a cottage industry in musicology.

Do you have a favorite characters from among your subjects?

Cristina Cavazza would be pleased that the convent
she used to sneak out of to see the opera has been
turned into a performance space.

I’ll just mention a couple of favorites who turn up in my book from 2010, Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy: a group of aristocratic, young nun musicians at the Bolognese convent of San Lorenzo in the 1580s, who ran afoul of the Inquisition for conjuring up the devil to help them find a lost viol. Or there’s Cristina Cavazza, a virtuoso singer at the convent of Santa Cristina della Fondazza in Bologna, who in 1708 sneaked out of the convent several times during carnival, dressed as an abbot, to attend the opera. Only after her fourth night at the opera did she finally get caught.

I understand you have some funny stories about your journeys through the archives of Italy. Can you share one with us?

Well, one thing I should point out is that the Vatican Secret Archive is nothing like Dan Brown’s description of it in Angels and Demons (and nothing like the set in the movie—which reminded me more, in fact, of the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale). One of my favorite archive stories involves a former grad student of mine, who was working day after day in the Vatican Secret Archive decades ago and turning up precious little. Then one morning the name of one of the best known Renaissance composers popped out at her from the page and she exclaimed “Holy Sh*t!” . . . loudly. I waited for the pope’s photograph to come crashing down off the wall.

Dr. Monson’s talk is free and open to the public, with Q&A and reception to follow. It takes place November 11, 2015, at 7:30pm. 
Church of the Advent
2366 Kemper Ln
Cincinnati, OH (Walnut Hills) 45206

Catacoustic’s concert, performing the music of this unusual time, will be November 13, 7:30pm.
St. Rose Church
2501 Riverside Drive
Cincinnati OH (East End) 45202
Tickets to the concert can be purchased here:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Telemann's Paris Quartets: Chamber Music of the High Baroque

October 3rd is opening day of Catacoustic's 15th season, and a stellar ensemble will be in town to celebrate. Matthew Dirst is the multi-award-winning (Fulbright scholar, Grammy nominee, and many others) founder of Ars Lyrica. Colin St-Martin has studied, toured, and recorded extensively in Europe and North America on the Baroque flute, as has Jin Kim on the Baroque violin. And Artistic Director Annalisa Pappano will be debuting her new bass viol.

GP Telemann
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was one of the most important and well-known German composers

of his time. His accomplishments came, however, in the face of a difficult personal life. His family intended him for the law, and when he persisted in his passion for music (he composed his first opera at the age of 12) they confiscated his instruments and unsuccessfully forbade further musical pursuits. Luckily for history, his gifts and ability caught the attention of his schoolteachers, classmates, ministers, civic leaders -- everyone around him, in fact -- and law school never stood a chance. His first wife died early in their marriage; his second wife cheated on him, incurred large gambling debts, and later left him. He struggled with publishing disputes, near bankruptcy, and failing health.

Michel Blavet
Even so, Telemann was a prolific composer (one of the most prolific in Western history) and was highly regarded by his peers, including Handel and JS Bach (he was godfather to CPE Bach). Telemann published the first German music periodical in an effort to encourage music making by amateurs and music students. He also pioneered the idea of music as the intellectual property of its composer. His compositions were innovative, combining elements of musical styles from across Europe. He helped bridge the musical transition from the Baroque to the Classical period.

J-P Guignon
By the 1730s Telemann was a famous composer, known throughout Europe. He wrote the first six of the Paris Quartets in preparation for a visit in Paris at the invitation of several famous musicians: flute player Michel Blavet, violinist Jean-Pierre Guignon, viol player Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, and a cellist by the name of Prince Edouard (today unknown). Telemann likely played harpsichord in these musical encounters. He wrote separate obbligato parts for cello and viol in a very diplomatic gesture, so the cellist and viol player could take turns in the ensemble. 

The name “Paris Quartets” was  stuck onto them only in the 20th century; some of them were actually published in Hamburg. The pieces we are performing today were originally named Nouveaux Quatuors en Six Suites. While they have a French title and French suite form, they were really more of a réunion des goûts, or a blending of the styles of many countries. The Paris Quartets sounded quite modern to contemporary ears, flirting with the newly popular galant style.

J-B Forqueray
Telemann wrote this of his musical experience in Paris:
“The admirable performances of these quartets by Messrs Blavet (transverse flute), Guignon (violin), the younger Forcroy (viola da gamba) and Edouard (cello) would be worth describing, were it possible for words to be found to do them justice. In short, they won the attention of the ears of the court and the town, and procured for me in a very little time an almost universal renown and increased esteem.”

Saturday, October 3, 7:30pm
Trinity Episcopal Church
326 Madison Avenue
Covington, KY  41011
Tickets $25, $10 students. Season tickets for Catacoustic's 15th season will also be available ($100 for five tickets) at the door, or at

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.