Sunday, December 4, 2016

Report from the Sixth Catacoustic Grant Winner: Shelby Mass

The 2016 winner of Catacoustic's Early Music Grant was Shelby Mass.  Shelby is currently a senior at Miami University, majoring in violin performance and Italian. Her hope is to continue on to graduate school and specialize in Baroque performance. She has attended Baroque performance workshops both in the US and in Europe. Her biggest need when she applied for the grant?  A Baroque bow!  Here is her report:

The bow is a Nardi, made of pernambuco
The Catacoustic Consort Grant program has enabled me to engage in a project that combines what I know with so much that is totally new. At the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute [attended this summer] I was stunned by the beauty and depth of this music, and I found myself completely hooked!

My inspiration is the relationship between humans and their art. A desire to explore the effect that history, philosophy, and music have upon each other led me to seek out resources for taking my search to the next level, and I am very blessed to have been chosen for a scholarship which enabled me to purchase my first Baroque bow. This bow has enabled me to prepare for upcoming auditions to graduate historical performance and performance practice programs. Simply practicing with my Baroque bow has given me a dramatically different understanding of the repertoire which I am studying, and Baroque performance practices have become much easier for me to understand and implement.

I began my early music adventure this summer with the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute and an undergraduate summer research project on the contrasts between Baroque and Classical compositional and performance practices, and with my new bow I am now able to engage in continued learning on this subject! I have been so very grateful and happy to be able to work with Catacoustic Consort’s support of this project, and I look forward to sharing what I have learned!

We're hoping Shelby will get a chance to perform in town during the Cincinnati Early Music Festival in February.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Colin St-Martin, Baroque Flute Player

Colin St-Martin (Huntsville, TX) will join Catacoustic for the third time for our December 3 concert of French Baroque Christmas music. He has enjoyed a career as an orchestral musician, soloist, and teacher. Mr. St-Martin performs and records with many period instrument orchestras and chamber ensembles in both the US and Europe including: Arcanum, Opera Lafayette, the Washington Bach Consort, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Amercian Bach Soloists, The Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, Cathedra, Ars Lyrica, Mercury Baroque, Arcanum, Bach Vespers, among others. In addition to his performance activities, he has many recordings to his credit, including the works of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Rebel, Lully, Monsigny, Gluck, and Grétry, among others.

I recently spoke with Colin and asked him some questions, so Catacoustic's audience can know more about his musical life story. Colin's creative, elegant, and natural playing inspires me every time I hear him! 

Tell me about your musical journey. Did you start with flute? How did you learn about Baroque flute?

I've always been a music lover. I was very lucky as a kid because, in addition to my dad be an avid audiophile and my mom playing the piano, we had season tickets to the Kennedy Center, so I had the opportunity to attend concerts quite often. Baroque music has always been my favorite, which I first experienced through the organ music of JS Bach. Naturally, I suppose, I wanted to play the organ, but as a child piano had to be my first step. I played for a few years, but I didn't (and still don't) have any affinity for that instrument, so I let my music studies go for a while. Luckily, I suppose, my oldest brother was required to take a music appreciation class during his undergraduate studies, which meant he had to buy a recorder. I began to play it, and after a while my parents suggested that I take recorder lessons. I was extremely lucky to have found a great teacher who still comes to hear me play when I'm in DC! For my 14th birthday (I think?), my parents bought tickets for a recital by the renowned recorder player Franz Bruggen. I had no idea that he was also going to play the baroque flute on the same program which was quite the revelation for me, never having seen it performed before. The very next day I set about trying to find an instrument and a teacher, which I was very fortunate to be able to do. When it was time for university, I chose music over science, which I also loved. After an impromptu audition with Bart Kuijken, my musical idol, backstage at the Smithsonian Museum, he recommended that before coming to study in Europe that I get a firmer grasp of the basics (theory, history, etc.), which I did for one year at New England Conservatory. In 1982 I was accepted into Bart's class in Brussels, where I studied for three years and then returned to the States to study at the Early Music Institute at Indiana University School of Music, where I was both a graduate student and adjunct faculty.

What is a typical week in your life like? Do you teach, as well as perform?

These days I don't have a regular teaching position. I taught at Peabody 17 years, but I spend my time now doing research and getting ready for concerts, which takes up a huge amount of time.

What is your favorite type of repertoire to play?

Definitely French Baroque music, next to Bach. I love the French language, art, architecture, and science from the period before the French Revolution. As repressive as the Ancien Regime doubtless was, many artists and craftsman of France seemed to find the means to disseminate their work throughout the western world at the time making it perhaps the strongest cultural influence on thought and creativity at the time.

What do you think of early music in the US now? Audience perception? Playing level of musicians? How does this compare to Europe?

It is very hit or miss, as far as the level in the US. I think the sheer volume of musical genres that are available to presenters these days sometimes does not translate into a consistently high level of performance for an audience to enjoy. I've seen many concert calendars where there might be two early music groups represented in a season: one a highly respected ensemble with numerous recordings and the other a group of enthusiastic amateur performers. In my experience, I find that in Europe the average level of early music performance is higher, though I strongly believe that their best is no better than ours. In order for professional early music performance to thrive in the US, we need presenters and audiences that can appreciate it and who are willing to make the effort to support American groups, like Catacoustic!

Where do you see the future of early music in the US?

I have been thinking about this a lot. In attempting to build audiences, there is the very real temptation for early music groups to go the "greatest hits" route of music history, which can stretch the skill and knowledge of any performer to the breaking point. My interest in going into this field in the first place was to be able to get as much as possible from the repertoire and instruments that I love most and not "do the best I can" with as much repertoire and as many instruments that a music director can throw at me. A very good thing is that more and more universities and conservatories offer early music performance as a course of professional study which can only serve to improve things and help create ever more discerning audiences.

What should someone do, if they are interested in beginning or playing Baroque flute more seriously?

My advice is to listen to lots of recordings and get in touch with a player/singer that you have heard and really like. Get their advice on a recommended course of study. Early music is a tiny little world compared to the music industry in general, and most players/singers are happy to help out those just getting started. Even the most well known among us are not celebrities in the common sense of the word– it’s not like trying to get an interview with Meryl Streep!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A Conversation with Daniel Swenberg, Lute Player

Daniel Swenberg is one of the foremost players of early plucked instruments in this country, and we are so fortunate to have him come to Cincinnati to invest in our music and community. He is playing in Catacoustic's November 13 concert of Italian song. I recently asked him some questions to give us a sense of his life as a professional lute player.

Tell me about your musical background? What instrument did you start on? How long have you been playing early plucked instruments?

When I was very young, I started Suzuki violin (a very brief stint). I didn’t take to it. I took lessons, but it wasn’t my thing. Eventually, I asked my parents to quit-- during a delusional phase of thinking I'd be a basketball star! As a teenager who wanted to play guitar, I had to petition my parents to prove my seriousness, taking classical, as well as rock lessons.

I have been playing lute for around 22 years. I played guitar before that. As a guitarist with a jazz background, I was interested in chamber music and improvisation. When I went to North Carolina School for the Arts, it was lute music that enthralled me. Before I graduated, I was playing lute music and reading lute tablature on a seven stringed guitar.

What is a typical week in your life like? You travel so much. How do you manage?

I spend roughly half of the year on the road: typically 150-180 days of the year. The week varies, depending on if I am on the road and where I am. If I am out of town for a concert, I do fewer things but am able to be more engaged in a single project. At home in NYC, I do more musical projects at once and teach students. And my cats are very demanding of their lost time and attention!

Travel can be tiring at times, but in general, I like it. I get to meet great people and go to good cities and get to have wonderful experiences. I end up in interesting places that I want to get to know better. It is seldom that I am filled with regret.

How many types of early plucked strings do you play? How do you keep them straight?

Within the lute world, I play Renaissance and Baroque solo lutes and continuo instruments (guitar, theorbo, and archlute). I also play 19th century guitar and mandolin. I own approximately 20 instruments in slightly different variations. I play around 7 different types on a regular basis and keep them at the ready for a recital at a month’s notice. Consistently, I play all the types of lutes. This is common of other lute players, but I play a few more than is typical. (Dave Walker, Lucas Harris, and I keep a similar routine.) Most early plucked instrumentalists focus on one type of lute, theorbo, and guitar. My interest in 19th-cent guitar, Renaissance, Baroque, and French instruments may be a bit excessive… I think I can credit and blame my mentor and friend Pat O’Brien for that – his interest in the variety of plucked instruments and their colorful history is a fascination that he encouraged.

What is your favorite type instrument to play?

My favorite instrument is theorbo and the variety you can play as a continuo instrument. It is a strange instrument, with a wacky tuning, but I think I understand it pretty well. If I were going to a desert island, I would bring a 17/18th-century (Baroque) lute. I love the repertoire, and the instrument is ingenious.

What do you think of early music in the US now? Audience perception? Playing level of musicians?

The performance level keeps getting better. I am encouraged, teaching at Juilliard and University of North Texas, by how many students continue to be interested in the field and can play at such a high level – amateurs, as well. With the Internet and groups like the NY Continuo Collective, it is easier to find teachers and people to play with. It keeps getting better.

Audiences remain what they are.  There was a time when early music seemed new and exciting and a reaction against classical music - and had that energy. As we age, that has disappeared a bit. I hope that more young people get exposed to classical music… This exposure is so much less than what it was when I was a child. More people need to come to concerts and appreciate some of the subtleties. Early music is like a sports game: if you watch it for the first time, you won’t be hooked. You need to know the how the plays work and appreciate the subtleties to be hooked.

Where do you see the future of early music in the US?

I teach in NY at Juilliard where many people come from all over the world, and many end up staying there after graduation. They start groups there, and it is great. However, I hope that ultimately people will go back to more of the mid-sized cities (like Cincinnati) and start wonderful series and groups there. Early music should not be just a San Francisco, Toronto, Boston, and NYC world. They need to spread the gospel.

What should someone do, if they are interested in beginning or playing the lute or theorbo more seriously?

That depends on where they live. Find out if there is a good teacher nearby by going to the Internet and visit the Lute Society of America’s webpage to find out about possible resources. There are plenty of rental instruments, and the Lute Society  holds summer and winter meetings/workshops where you could get experience. Large cities are certainly easier. In Cincinnati or northern Kentucky, you could go to the Lute Society meetings and rent an instrument. With Catacoustic there is always a bevvy of good lute players coming through. Chris Wilke, Dieter Hennings (Lexington), Tina Gutierrez, and Larry Brown are all local players who could help keep their enthusiasm going.

All photos taken by Tina Gutierrez

Monday, October 24, 2016

Virginia Warnken Will Join Catacoustic for November Concert

Hailed by the New York Times as an “elegant,” “rich-toned alto” with “riveting presence,” GRAMMY© Award-winning mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken is becoming known throughout the American musical community for her heartfelt interpretations of the works of Bach, Handel, and their contemporaries, as well as for her exciting and unique performances of avant-garde 20th and 21st century works.

Born in 1984 and raised in southern Louisiana just outside of New Orleans, Virginia grew up immersed in music. The daughter of two musicians, she was exposed to the great artists of jazz, rock/blues, classical, and world music from early childhood. As a child, she took piano lessons, sang in children’s choirs, and studied guitar with her father.

For high school, she attended New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), where she studied classical voice, music theory, and ear training in an intensive full-time conservatory setting.

At the age of 17, she moved to New York City for undergraduate studies in opera performance at Manhattan School of Music. There, she soon found a deep love for works outside of the standard opera repertoire, particularly works composed before the year 1750 and after 1900.

Soon after completing studies at MSM, she was fully employed in NYC as a singer of early music and contemporary music, performing as a soloist with some of NYC’s most prominent ensembles, particularly, the Grammy-nominated Trinity Wall Street Choir, led by Julian Wachner, Clarion Music Society, led by Steven Fox, Musica Sacra, and the Oratorio Society of New York, both led by Kent Tritle.

In addition, Virginia appears with numerous other ensembles as a soloist, including Philharmonia Baroque, led by Nic McGegan, Carmel Bach Festival chorale and recitals, American Classical Orchestra, multi Grammy-nominated ensemble Seraphic Fire, TENET, Green Mountain Project, and many others.

She has appeared on the main stages of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center numerous times as the alto soloist in major works such as Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Mass in B minor, Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, Handel’s Samson, among others.

In 2009, Virginia became a founding member of the groundbreaking Grammy© Award-winning alternative-classical vocal band Roomful of Teeth (2014, best chamber ensemble/small ensemble), described as “sensually stunning” by the New York Times, and “Powerful” by Rolling Stone Magazine, integrating western and non-western vocal techniques such as Tuvan throat singing, Inuit throat singing, yodeling, high Bulgarian-style belting, Korean P’ansori, along with several others, and collaborating with composers to forge a new repertoire for the voice using an expanded sound palette.

In addition to her work with Roomful of Teeth, Ms. Warnken is a fervent advocate of contemporary music, and has performed with and premiered works by numerous prominent composers and non-classical pop/rock acts including Questlove and other members of legendary hip-hop/neo-soul band The Roots, Glenn Kotche of Wilco, Louis Andriessen, Caleb Burhans, Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli, and Steve Reich.

In addition to performing, Ms. Warnken also enjoys teaching and has taught privately, guest lectured, and given masterclasses at many higher educational institutions including Yale, Princeton, Williams College, Wellesley, Vassar, and Dickinson College.

Virginia holds a Masters degree from the Yale School of Music, where she took part in the highly respected Early Music voice program in conjunction with the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. During her time there, she was afforded the opportunity to work with world renowned conductors such as Masaaki Suzuki, Nic McGegan, and Simon Carrington, and went on two international tours as a soloist with Yale Schola Cantorum.

She currently resides in Branford, CT, in the scenic shoreline district of Short Beach, in a 19th century cottage overlooking the sea. When not working, she can be found there, swimming, cooking, sailing, and seeking adventure in the great outdoors.

You may learn more about this talented singer and hear excerpts at her website at
Make sure to join us at 3:00PM on November 13 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington to hear some passionate Italian music!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

With His Air of Angels: Purcell Fantasies for Viola da Gamba Consort

Catacoustic Consort opens its 16th season Saturday, September 17, at 7:30pm at Church of the Advent, 2366 Kemper Ln in East Walnut Hills (45206).

Died? No, he lives while yonder organ’s sound
And sacred echoes to the choir rebound.
On the bill is music of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), universally considered one of the greatest English composers of all time.

Purcell wrote a huge variety of music, including opera, sacred, and music for royal occasions. But his intimate chamber music, in particular the Fantasies for four viols, holds a special place in the hearts of performers. In the early 20th century, when viol consorts were extremely thin on the ground, many composers re-worked his melodies for modern ensembles. Percy Grainger went so far as to call it “the most sublimely beautiful many-voiced democratic music known to me.” 

Percy Grainger was a fan
Why democratic? Because unlike the modern string quartet, which places the spotlight firmly on the first violin with the other instruments often reduced to supporting roles, the viol fantasies consider each voice equal. Four intricate, complicated parts, all of a similar complexity and difficulty, weave around each other to create a tapestry of themes.

The Fantasia form was outside the regulation strictures of the dance forms of the era, and it has a modern, almost improvisatory feel. By the time Purcell composed these pieces, this form was quickly going out of style – his employer the King of England was certainly no fan – so one imagines Purcell composing purely for his own pleasure, and stretching his wings a bit in consequence.

Catacoustic welcomes Wildcat Viols, a San Francisco-based ensemble with which Annalisa also plays. After the performance the musicians will stay in town and begin a recording session. A CD of this music will be available for purchase in the coming months.

Tickets $25, students $10, under 12 free.  Tickets available at the door or in advance at

At this concert only, Season Ticket packages for the 2016-2017 season will also be available at the door. Buy five flexible tickets for only $100, a 20% savings. Season tickets are also available online now.

So was G. M. Hopkins
"Henry Purcell," by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

The poet wishes well to the divine genius of Purcell and praises him that, whereas other musicians have given utterance to the moods of man’s mind, he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the very make and species of man as created both in him and in all men generally.

HAVE, fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear
To me, so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell,
An age is now since passed, since parted; with the reversal
Of the outward sentence low lays him, listed to a heresy, here.
Not mood in him nor meaning, proud fire or sacred fear,        5
Or love or pity or all that sweet notes not his might nursle:
It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal
Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.
Let him Oh! with his air of angels then lift me, lay me! only I’ll
Have an eye to the sakes of him, quaint moonmarks, to his pelted plumage under        10
Wings: so some great stormfowl, whenever he has walked his while
The thunder-purple seabeach plumèd purple-of-thunder,
If a wuthering of his palmy snow-pinions scatter a colossal smile
Off him, but meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

John Powell, music historian and lecturer

John S. Powell is an expert in French Baroque opera. He prepared the performance score for La Feste de Ruel. He will be in town during the week of the performance, and will give a public talk on the opera and its rediscovery.

Dr. Powell is a widely published author on the French Baroque, music, dance, and theatre. He has also worked with a long list of specialists around the world to revive long-forgotten works for the stage. We asked him a little about himself.

What led you to your field of expertise?

My PhD dissertation was on music in the theater of Molière, which I came to after having seen a production of Le Misantrope in Seattle. I wondered if there might be any music for these plays, and it turns out that there was. From Molière’s comédies-ballets I became interested in French opera.

How do you think opera in France was different from other opera at the time?

Two ways:  its heavy emphasis on dance (the roots of French opera lay in ballet de cour) and its allegory. All French opera of the 17th century aimed to glorify Louis XIV, who was equated with the hero of the opera. In the case of La Feste de Ruel, the praise of Louis XIV is even more fulsomely obvious.

What is your favorite thing about Baroque opera? Do you like conventional opera, too, or does Baroque opera stand apart in your mind?

French baroque opera is a total Gesamtkunstwerk (to borrow Wagner’s term -- I like Wagner too):  music, dance, stagecraft, costumes, acting, gesture, allegory. I like all opera, all periods. I teach a course on the Mozart/da Ponte operas, and another course on Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. For a few years I taught a course on Wagner and Tolkien, comparing Wagner’s Ring with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I have also taught a course on the Faust legend in music and literature.

Why is Charpentier a favorite? What is his appeal for you?

I first encountered Charpentier’s music in 1974 when he was comparatively unknown, especially in the U.S. I was looking for a topic for my Master’s thesis, and so I settled on his secular cantatas (which were unpublished, unperformed, and unrecorded). As a grad student in the mid-1970s I organized two concerts of these works.

What are some interesting things you’ve run across in your research?

One interest of mine is music that was brought to Nouvelle-France, which included French Canada and all of the Louisiana Purchase. This topic arose from a course I taught at the Université de Nancy, for which I read many of the accounts of the early French explorers. I have gone to archives in Quebec, Montreal, and New Orleans to investigate this music, which was mostly brought by the Jesuits. One thing I found amusing was a set of Lully opera scores in Montreal that had engravings of lady opera singers with low-cut tops…and some Jesuit (I presume) filled in their bodices with ink.

Dr. Powell's talk is free and open to the public.

7pm, Wednesday, June 1, 2016
Downtown branch of the Cincinnati Public Library
Huenefeld Tower Room
800 Vine St.
Cincinnati, OH 45202