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!