Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Early Music Festival Week Four

The final week of Early Music Festival 2015 is upon us. If you like opera, you’re in luck.  If you don’t, you’re still in luck.

Heinrich Schütz
The Knox Choir under the direction of Earl Rivers has an ongoing relationship with Heinrich Schütz – last year they presented a lovely selection from his Symphoniae Sacrae III, including a riveting Saul. This year they will sing some more from this collection, as well as from his Geistliche Chormusik, as part of the 11:00 service at Knox Presbyterian Church in Hyde Park.

CCM’s production of Monteverdi’s Poppea continues, with performances Friday, Feb 20, Saturday, Feb 21, and Sunday Feb 22.

On Monday night at 6:00 you have another chance to hear the series of concerts taking place at the public library branches.  Annalisa Pappano of Catacoustic and this year’s two Catacoustic Early Music Scholarship winners Cole Guillien and Stephen Goist will play viol trios by Senfl, Isaac, Gibbons, and others.  This week is at the Wyoming Branch.

Tuesday Feb 24 brings us one more noontime treat at Christ Church Cathedral downtown. CCM professor Michael Unger’s keyboard students will perform a potpourri of music for harpsichord and organ. The line-up will be a surprise, but I’m reliably told to expect some Bach.

Cincinnati Chamber Opera tackles Handel this year, after last year’s memorable Orfeo. Handel is one of the greatest pre-Mozart opera composers, and Ariodante is one of Handel’s best.  It will be performed twice, Friday Feb 27 and Sunday March 1, in Wyoming.

CCM’s undergraduate opera series has chosen Handel for this year, as well.  Alcina will be performed on the CCM campus four times:  Friday Feb 27, Saturday Feb 28 at 2:00 and again at 8:00, and Sunday March 1.

And then we come to the final concert of the Festival, and it will be a grand finale indeed.  Catacoustic Consort, the Festival’s sponsor, will perform a program of sacred music from the French High Baroque, with soprano Shannon Mercer of Toronto, pardessus, and harpsichord. The composer, Jean-Joseph de Mondonville, was one of the greatest of his time, but he is strangely neglected these days. And of course our own Annalisa Pappano is one of the few masters of the pardessus working today. All this adds up to an absolutely unique evening. This is the time of the year that we all meet by candlelight in Terrace Park.  Doors will open early, so order your tickets online and settle into the best seats for a transporting evening.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Catacoustic Consort: My Heart is Prepared

The final concert of the 3rd annual Cincinnati Early Music Festival will take place Feb. 28 at 7:30, and will feature soprano Shannon Mercer (Toronto) with harpsichordist Michael Unger and Annalisa Pappano on pardessus de viole performing the music of Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville.

Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711-1772) was one of the great composers of the French Baroque period. He was an innovative composer – in one of his collections of "violin sonatas," the pieces are actually harpsichord sonatas with violin accompaniment! He also utilized newly developed techniques like harmonics. Mondonville worked as a violinist and was Maître de musique de la chapelle du roi. He composed operas (one premiered Madame de Pompadour in the lead role) and motets as well as instrumental music, and later in life directed the famous Concert Spirituel series.

Recognized for the luminosity and effortless agility of her voice, as well as her commanding stage presence and profound acting ability, Canadian soprano Shannon Mercer enthusiastically embraces a range of repertoire from early to contemporary music. Shannon maintains a busy and challenging performance calendar of opera, concert, and recital engagements throughout North America and Europe while also sustaining an active recording presence, capturing some rarely performed works.

An alumna of San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Opera Summer Program, Shannon began her operatic career as a member of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio Program. A Career Development Grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and the award of the 2004 Bernard Diamant Prize allowed Shannon to spend an extended period of time in Vienna where she studied German operatic repertoire with renowned voice coach Margaret Singer. She also received the Virginia Parker Prize from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Women's Musical Club of Toronto Career Development Award.

Listen to Shannon Mercer singing a selection of the Mondonville that Catacoustic will perform at:

This candlelight concert of sacred music will evoke the refined elegance of an earlier age with rare instruments and sublime performances. Come early for the best seats. A reception follows. For ticket information go to

Early Music Festival Week Three

Week three of the Early Music Festival – is it already halfway through?  

Sunday Feb 15, at 3:00 is the early music choral invitational.  If you came last year, you may remember that we heard music from the Middle Ages right through to the late Baroque.  I think my favorite was the Renaissance music.  That was an exceptionally rich era for choral music, and the acoustics of the Cathedral were perfectly suited to the kind of reverberation that starts up with the stacking of harmonies that the composers from that era did best.  This year’s line-up includes the Cathedral Choir of St Peter in Chains, the Edgecliff Vocal Ensemble of Xavier University, and Cincinnati Camerata.  It’s only once a year that you get to hear a celebration of this most exquisite music on this order.

Also Sunday Feb 15, this time at 4:00, is another performance of sacred music.  Consort in
the Egg is an instrumental ensemble that focuses on music from the early Renaissance.  They began as a collection of delightful wind instruments, and they have expanded to strings and, in this recital, voices.  They will present music largely by the great Swiss composer Ludwig Senfl, including some from Tandernaken, al op den Rijn, and featuring Da Jesus an dem Kreuze hing. This is an expanded version of the concert they played at Christ Church Cathedral at last week’s Live at Lunch, and takes place at Sacred Heart Church in Camp Washington.  Tickets are $10 at the door, or are available in advance at 513-541-4654.

On Monday night at 6:00 you have another chance to hear the series of concerts taking place at the public library branches.  Annalisa Pappano of Catacoustic and this year’s two Catacoustic Early Music Scholarship winners Cole Guillien and Stephen Goist will play viol trios by Senfl, Isaac, Gibbons, and others.  This week is at the Wyoming Branch.

And then we begin the opera juggernaut.  In case you haven’t heard, you have the opportunity to hear THREE Baroque operas in the second half of this month.  First up is L’incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi.  This production is part of CCM’s Studio series, presented by graduate students.  It will be performed three times:  Fri Feb 20 at 8pm, Sat Feb 21 at 8pm, and Sun Feb 22 at 2pm.  Tickets are free but must be reserved in advance.  For details see our calendar at 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Music of the Spanish Renaissance

One of the most exciting new programs of the Early Music Festival will take place February 11. Beautiful Old St. Mary’s in Over-the-Rhine will host an a cappella performance of an entire Mass setting as composed by one of the most important composers of Renaissance Spain. 

Matthew Swanson is the man behind this venture. He is assistant choir master at Church of the Redeemer in Hyde Park, and sings with the May Festival Chorus and the Vocal Arts Ensemble. While studying at Notre Dame with Alexander Blachly, noted founder of the pioneering early music vocal ensemble Pomerium, Swanson discovered plainchant and Renaissance polyphony. After earning his master’s at CCM in conducting, he spent a year at Cambridge soaking up every drop he could of English choral traditions. He led the choir of the University’s Catholic Chapel and earned another master’s in choral studies from Kings College, before returning to Cincinnati.

It was in the glee club at Notre Dame under the direction of Daniel Stowe that Swanson first made the acquaintance of Cristóbal de Morales, and he’s never forgotten him.  Morales isn’t quite a household name these days.  But during his lifetime, c1500-1553, he was very well known indeed. He was the most important composer in Spain of his day or before, and the Church considered him the vital link between Josquin, 1450-1521, and Palestrina, 1525-1594.  His contemporaries carried his music to all corners of the Spanish empire:  It was certainly sung in Angola and Mexico in the 16th century, and perhaps even in the northern missions of Texas and New Mexico as well.

The Mass Swanson has chosen for us this year, the Missa Ave Maria, is quite unusual in that it was written without any high parts.  In 16th century Spain boys were usually on hand to sing the soprano and alto lines. In this case, however, the score calls for men only: tenor, tenor, tenor, and bass. Morales takes one of the most famous musical themes of his era and launches a dozen conversations with it, shifting it among the voices, using it as an organum foundation in the basses and as an ornament in the high voices, and in the most inspired and fiendishly difficult moment, handing it to the two central voices, having them sing it as a canon, and then giving the outermost voices different text to sing around it. Even his contemporaries were at a loss when it came to his music, proud of his obvious genius, but frequently puzzled by exactly what he was doing.

And then there’s Tomás Luis de Victoria, c 1548-1611, whose music we will also hear.  Just a generation behind Morales, the music of the two men is in fact quite different. To hear them back to back, as we will in this program, is to hear two sides of a divide. Where Morales is modal, using the harmonies that sound to us more medieval, Victoria is more tonal, or in other words, more modern to our ears.  Morales’ brisker, more practical treatment of his subject gives way to a more leisurely, exploratory approach in Victoria. Some see Morales as less emotional, whereas Victoria is often mistaken for the smooth and consonant Palestrina. Victoria may seem like a “soothing balm” after Morales, although Morales rewards careful listening with his ever-changing harmonies and avid adherence to his text.  

An exciting group of singers has come together to perform this work. They call themselves Vicars Choral, and they consist of advanced students at CCM, a CCM professor and specialist in chant, a composer, a member of the May Festival Chorus, the director of music at Old St Mary’s, and a medical researcher from Indianapolis who was likewise bitten by the early music bug while at Notre Dame and never quite shook it off. One never knows when assembling a vocal ensemble how it will work:  eight excellent singers may not quite fit with each other. “There’s a groove you need to get into,” admits Swanson, “especially with people who haven’t done it before – it can be tricky. The music is very exacting. ” 

Old St. Mary's

If we list the participants in this program, we will include the eight choristers; Swanson; Morales and Victoria; and last but not least, Old St. Mary’s church itself.  Swanson cannot say enough about how perfect he finds the marriage between venue and music.
·     -- First of all there is the singing of an Ave Maria Mass in a church dedicated to Mary.
·   --  Then there is the church’s ties to the to the order of St. Philip Neri, a cleric who was a contemporary of both Morales and Victoria and who is credited with the development of the oratorio and the central role of music in worship. 
·    -- Add in Old St. Mary’s great age (for a North American church) and celebration of tradition. Did you know you can hear Mass sung there every week in English, Latin, and German?  That Old St. Mary’s is the only church in the nation with a weekly sung German Mass?  The thousand-year-old musical traditions of the Church are alive and well and being celebrated here every week  – to sing a piece composed a mere 500 years ago seems perfectly in keeping with the mission of the church.
·    -- And then there is the physical space.  The acoustics will be perfect for the music, and the atmosphere of the sanctuary feels “appropriately grand,” in Swanson’s words, for an undertaking such as this.  

To be clear:  This program is in fact a musical performance.  No Mass will be celebrated, no sermons given nor communion taken.  All are welcome.  It will be almost certainly your only chance to hear a full polyphonic Mass written only for men’s voices, certainly this year in Cincinnati. When you consider the vital role this musical form had on the history of music – and indeed on the history of the Western world – you will not want to miss this opportunity to hear it as it was originally intended, and is so rarely presented today. 

Wednesday, February 11, 7:30pm. Free will offering.  Details

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Catacoustic Early Music Scholarship Winners -- Where Are They Now?

This spring Catacoustic will award its 5th Annual Early Music Scholarship. Here’s a check in with our past award winners:

Way back in 2011, our first winner was Elizabeth Motter. An accomplished professional harpist,
Elizabeth was interested in taking on the Baroque triple harp. It turns out the difference between a modern pedal harp and the Baroque triple harp is substantial. She began her journey at the Accademia d’Amore in Seattle, courtesy of the Catacoustic scholarship.  Since then she has attended Tafelmusik and Oberlin’s Baroque Performance Institute, and had coaching with a variety of continuo players. It’s been a real challenge, but the work has been paying off. Elizabeth has played now with University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in several Monteverdi projects, in Minneapolis with Consortium Carissimi, with Catacoustic (including two concerts this season), and for Cincinnati Opera’s presentation of La Calisto. Here’s how Elizabeth sums up her growing involvement with early music in Cincinnati:
I consider myself fortunate to have people here in Cincinnati to play baroque music with, and a community of baroque-curious, with whom to learn, such as the many singers from CCM who have agreed to do various projects for free in exchange for coaching. And slowly the community here is growing, as a result. It is important to have a community of people to actually play with. I have heard from baroque harp players in other cities that they don't have people to collaborate with on a regular basis, that there is no local early music community, so I am extremely grateful to be in a place that offers such opportunities.”

Our second award, in 2012, was given to Micah Fusselman, enabling him to purchase his own viola da gamba. Micah has since moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where he is teaching viol to four adult students and several children. They are on the brink of beginning to play in consort with each other—quite an achievement after less than two years!  

Micah also plays himself, of course, including an upcoming series of Bach Gamba Sonatas. He also loves playing with his students. “I've been using the gamba quite a lot working with my cello and violin students, actually. I've learned to play bass lines and realize continuo at the same time so that I can accompany various 17th and 18th-century sonatas. It's a real challenge for me, but it works very nicely in some pieces and the students learn a lot about the style. My students have become so accustomed to me accompanying on the viol that they never mention it anymore. It's funny when a new student shows up to a group class and sees the gamba for the first time, is amazed and aghast, and my other students calmly give him or her the rundown.” What a delight to think that a community of early music-savvy people is coming up in Omaha, and Catacoustic had a hand in the making of it!

The award in 2013 went to Michael Zaret. Michael was once a professional recorder player (his
group, Musica Camerata, toured, and even performed on “A Prairie Home Companion”.) Over the years that had slipped into the background. But there came a time when he realized he was ready to get back to playing. His lovely collection of recorders was showing the years of neglect:  the scholarship allowed him to have them refurbished and returned to performance quality. And because a talented recorder player is always in demand, Michael has become a sought-after member of many groups around town.

Michael plays regularly with Consort in the Egg, which features mostly wind instruments and very early Renaissance music (playing Feb 10 at Live at Lunch at Christ Church Cathedral); Cincinnati Recorder Consort, which combines pros and amateurs and explores all kinds of repertoire; Noyse Merchants, which specializes in authentic instruments and Renaissance music; and sometimes he sits in with Ubi Caritas, a Baroque wind band. He is also active in several pick-up groups. His motto is essentially “Will Play for Fun.” He’s branching out into the worlds of Baroque flute, cornettino, and cornamuse. Michael’s day job is as a teacher at Skyward Academy, where he teaches junior and high-school kids on the autism spectrum to play recorder and read music. He’ll also give recorder lessons to adults:  this could be your big chance!

In 2014, we were fortunate to be able to make two awards. These were to two young men who started out at CCM studying conventional instruments – cello and viola respectively – but who have been seduced by the wonders of early music and the viola da gamba.

Cole Guillien is hoping to go to a historical performance program, perhaps at Oberlin, Peabody, or Julliard, next year. Till then, he’s busy playing with Catacoustic, the Shakespeare Band, and solo. He attended this summer’s Viola da Gamba Conclave, where he met like-minded musicians from around the country. And he’s starting to think about adding Baroque cello to his resumé.  Cole freely admits, “The world of historical performance is starting to consume my life from all angles .” 

Stephen Goist is wrapping up his Master’s degree in viola performance at CCM. But he’s been studying viola da gamba on the side for four years, and has fallen in love with early music. The scholarship has made it possible for him to own his own instrument. “I hope to explore a wide range of music for bass viol, including continuo accompaniment and solo repertoire. I hope to continue to perform as a part of the early
music community in Cincinnati and even perform a solo recital sometime in the future.” Save us a front-row seat!

Applications for the 2015 Catacoustic Consort Early Music Scholarship are open now, and will be due April 1. We encourage all members of the community who are serious about early music to apply. Details and applications can be found at our website,