Profile: Canticum Scholare, NY's newest early music a cappella ensemble

By Raymond Beegle
Special correspondent for Classical Voice

On one of his visits to New York during the Easter season, the formidable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau went with his accompanist Gerald Moore, to the movies at Radio City Music Hall. He was astounded to find that the legendary musical show began with the Good Friday Spell from “Parsifal” – but he was even more astounded by the segue into ‘Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail’, as “… a menacingly large Easter bunny, complete with eggs and chicks filled the stage.”

I wonder if he might have thought of his cherished Goethe’s observation that the general public “… is accustomed to transform the great and sublime into a sport, and even a farce, for how, indeed could they otherwise abide and endure it?”

Another transformation occurs, of course, during the Christmas season, when the sublime, the Magnum Misterium, of God entering a human body, is reduced to Santa, Rudolf, and Frosty filling the minds of the American consumer. 

This will not be the case in the concert of New York’s Canticum Scholare, which will take place at 7:30 on Saturday, December 12th, at the historical Church of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village. Victoria’sO Magnum Misterium will be on the program along with other Renaissance choral works by Sweelink, Palestrina, and Taverner. This superb ensemble of 18 singers was founded by their director Jin Krista Kang, and executive director, Tom Solon, out of love for the purity of the music of that period and the depth of the texts. Mr. Solon gives us some insights into the music, the artists, and the part played by this wonderful ensemble in commercialized, energized, and sometimes traumatized New York, especially during the Christmas season:

Raymond Beegle: New York has had a tradition of great early music vocal ensembles like Noah Greenburg’s New York Pro Musica and later the Waverly Consort. Why did such institutions cease to exist in New York, and does Canticum Scholare intend to be the reviver of this genre?

Tom Solon: When Jin Krista and I started Canticum Scholare, we had no idea what was out there in terms of other NYC-based ensembles. We know of the big ones like, Tenet, Pomerium, and New York Polyphony. We were and still are, focused on doing the best music we can whether or not it revives an ancient art. I think during the 1980s and 1990s, people were much more keen on music of the 19th through 20th centuries. Big operas; big concerti; big big big. Early music became a decoration on the side mostly. Big money was spent to ensure that these behemoth organizations stayed around. Nowadays, even the titans are feeling the pinch. Canticum Scholare is a NY nonprofit organization. This designation is quite important to us as part of the overall strategy to allow people to support a cause that's important to them. With for-profit organizations, the commercialization takes away from their primary focus. I believe that if you expose people to early music, they will come back. We hope, through concerted efforts, to bring early music back to NYC as a contributor to this fine art.

                             Tom Solon, Tenor/Co-founder

                             Tom Solon, Tenor/Co-founder

RB: What does early music have to say that later music does not?
TS: This is a very interesting question. Peter Phillips once described the art of a cappella polyphonic singing as "extremely challenging... more than opera". He said in so many words, that with opera, everything is given to you: how you should act, move, etc. With ancient polyphony, none of it is there. It requires a bit more conjecture on the part of the artist. And with all a cappella polyphony, you have no one but your colleagues to back you up. We do not have the luxury of having instruments help us out.

RB: Do you do exclusively sacred music?
TS: As a general practice, we focus our efforts solely on sacred music. However, we have on occasion, encored with secular madrigals that are within the epoch of the featured music we present.

RB: How is your audience different from other audiences in New York City?
TS: From the insipient stages of Canticum our audience have been mostly congregants at St. Joseph's Church in Greenwich Village - that was in 2013. Now, our audience has grown to lovers of early music from all over the city. It's so inspiring to see new faces in the audience. And like their more modern counterparts, early music concert goers are equally intelligent and thoughtful about the art the love.

RB: How have you developed a following?
TS: Canticum does only the best of early music. We attract our audiences primarily through church, however, we are also adding more efforts through social media. Our website, also allows people to sign up for our emails, follow us on Facebook and/or Twitter, and to communicate directly with us. 

RB: What is the attitude of your singers? Are they professional or amateur?
TS: The artists of Canticum are professional early music specialists. They are amazingly passionate about the complex art of early music singing.  We approach every project with diligence, passion, and commitment.

                          Jin Krista Kang, Conductor/Co-founder

                          Jin Krista Kang, Conductor/Co-founder

RB: Why do you love early music more than music of other periods?
TS: Early on in my musical life I listened to the Tallis Scholars, and was absolutely enthralled. I was astounded that this beautiful music fit my voice type, and an abundance of it existed out there. I also love how early polyphony relies so heavily on the group. Without a solid group, things don't congeal, as they should. I also feel that early music singers are just much more pleasant to be around!

RB: Do you think that your repertoire would be of interest to a large segment of New Yorkers?
TS: I truly believe so. When New Yorkers realize that early music is so incredibly profound, complex, challenging, and uniquely beautiful, they will take more interest in it. The music speaks for itself: beautiful and timeless.  

RB: What is the difference between art and entertainment?
TS: In a word: depth. Sure, we could gather together as a group, and perform the Cat's Meow, or, sing a medley of Pop-Goes-The-Weasel and probably sing it beautifully. But if we sang, Taverner's Dum Transisset, where the composer uses incredibly beautiful word-painting to conjure the beauty of Christ's resurrection, you'd be brought to tears. The beauty in the synergy of the gospel stories into polyphony by a Renaissance master that has survived epochs is profound art.

RB: Tell us about your conductor.
TS: Jin Krista Kang is an experienced conductor with a profound love of early music. Her passion for the Renaissance and Baroque reflects in her programming. She hand picks all the singers, works closely with them all on a personal level, and makes great strides to ensure that the music we sing is accurately portrayed in its historical style. She studied with Dennis Keene and McNeil Robinson while she was at Manhattan School of Music. She also studied with August Humer at the Bruckner Konservatorium in Linz, Austria. There, her love of early music flourished and she brought it back with her to New York. She's also a vegetarian!

Canticum Scholare Christmas Concert
Canticum Scholare
Saturday, December 12, 2015, 7:30pm
St. Joseph Church in Greenwich Village. 371 6th Ave, New York, NY 10014
Suggested Donation: $20 General, $15 Students/Seniors