Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Looking Back on the Cincinnati Early Music Festival, 2015

What were the numbers?

We had eighteen unique events, at sixteen different venues. 324 performers, and 2150 audience members. This last number is 45% more than last year.

Who were the participating groups?

Cantigium. Rod and Mary Stucky. The Shakespeare Band. Catacoustic’s pre-professional mentoring program. Cincinnati Bach Ensemble. Cincinnati Camerata. Consort in the Egg. The Vicars Choral. Harpers Robin. Cantantes Camarae. Cincinnati Viol Consort. Cincinnati Recorder Consort. The Choir of Saint Peter in Chains Cathedral. Xavier University’s Edgecliff Vocal Ensemble. The CCM Opera Studio  and undergraduate series. The Knox Choir. Michael Unger’s keyboard studio. Cincinnati Chamber Opera. The Catacoustic Consort. And several ad hoc combinations that came together just for the Festival.

Who was the most ubiquitous performer of the year?

Bill Willits. He played lute, theorbo, Renaissance guitar, and modern guitar. He played with the Shakespeare Band (twice), Consort in the Egg (three times), in a Telemann flute-guitar duo, and in the pit of Poppea. 

What were some memorable moments?

  • Scott Hewitt and his contrabass recorder, an instrument that towers above its performer, that looks like a cross between a totem pole and a didgeridoo and sounds as sweet as the wind through the lava tubes of Venus.
  • The lovely performance of Hans Leo Hassler’s Verbum caro factum est by the Edgecliff Vocal Ensemble. What choral music should be about.
  • Cornamuse and hurdy-gurdy duets, or the Larry and Michael show. They’ve clearly been missing from my life too long.

  • Barbara LeMay as the villainous Polinesso in Ariodante. She sneered, she seduced, she purred, she snarled, she twirled her metaphorical black mustache in every way possible.  She was hilariously evil. More bad guys like this, please!

  • Matthew Swanson saying that when he returned to the States and could have settled anywhere, he came to Cincinnati because he knew he could make a living here as a choral conductor.  That’s the kind of city we live in!
  • "Sweep chimney sweep, from the bottom to the top. Then shall no soot fall in your porridge pot." Because that would be bad.

  • The troubadour songs performed by the Harpers Robin concert. First, all those harps playing together sounded so pretty, and then suddenly during a 13th century tune called Winder wie ist the harpists began to sing.  The hair lifted off my neck and I could smell the smoke from a distant hearth and feel the damp rising from snows long melted and hear the ghosts of the minnesingers long past.
I should've taken up viola da gamba
  • Overheard by an audience member:  “They play an instrument called Vasco da Gama.  I think that’s what they’re called.”

  • As far as early music warhorses go, you can’t get much better than Les Baricades mistérieuses by Couperin, and it was a pure pleasure to hear it crashing out of the William Dowd harpsichord at Christ Church Cathedral.

  • Armando Linares’ voice (of Cantantes Camarae ). It’s just so warm and pleasant.

  • The entire Catacoustic concert was a standout, and the soprano Shannon Mercer was amazing, but I think my very favorite moment of the evening was the instrumental, a little sonata for harpsichord and pardessus. It was spectacularly beautiful, and the mystery is why this isn’t a warhorse.

Is there any more early music to come?

Oh yes! The Bach Festival is already in full swing, Bach Vespers happen every month, Ubi Caritas has a concert coming up in April, Christ Church Cathedral has early music going on all the time – note especially the Charpentier cantata coming up at the end of March – and Catacoustic has two more concerts left in their season, one in March and one in April. Let’s face it:  Early Music is no longer the exotic occasional guest. It’s become a standard, year-round player in the Cincinnati arts scene. Join the Cincinnati Early Music Project Facebook page to keep informed of events as they arise.

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