Up Close and Personal with Dianna Grabowski

Posted in Up Close & Personal on February 15, 2012 by armoniaceleste

Dianna Grabowski is Armonia Celeste’s mezzo-soprano. She lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband Greg, and their dog Friday.

Dianna Grabowski, mezzo-soprano

Q. When did you start singing?
A. I started singing in grade school, when I had a solo in the “Shapin’ Up Santa” fifth-grade play. I played the character of Elf #8.

Q. At what point did you decide you wanted to do this for your career?
A. There was never one point where I made a conscious decision. I decided to try out being a voice performance major when I went to college, but I was honest with myself about the fact that it might not work out. But, it did! As I’ve grown as a singer, I keep re-assessing where I am in my career and whether I’m still happy and want to keep going, and which direction to go next. And in case you’re wondering, I’m very happy!

Q. How did you discover that you were a mezzo? Were there ever any doubts as to your fach?
A. I’ve always been a very lyric mezzo, and my high range filled out before my low did. But, that’s not atypical for a young mezzo. It’s very nice to have low notes now, though!

Q. What was it about singing early music that called to you?
A. First and foremost, it was the people I met that attracted me to the Collegium singers at the University of North Texas. After that, I grew to appreciate the independence that comes with singing more chamber music. The vocal demands of early music are a lot more varied than I originally thought, and I found the challenge of learning to sing in this new style very appealing.

Q. Why did you want to become involved in forming Armonia Celeste?
A. The primary reason I wanted to help form Armonia Celeste is the other singers, Sarah and Rebecca. Not only are they two of my best friends, but the three of us have always had an uncanny ability to play off of each other in performance. We also have very different vocal timbres, but they come together in such an interesting way. To sing this repertoire, which can be florid, lyrical, and intense all at the same time, you have to be able to trust your fellow singers and know how to give and take. This comes naturally between Sarah, Rebecca, and me.

Dianna at the Dordogne river valley

Q. What are some things you like to do when you aren’t making music?
A. I love to read, cook, knit, and watch movies!

Q. What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?  🙂
A. I tend not to have a favorite anything. It depends greatly on my mood. But I’d have to say I go most often for the Cookies and Cream.

Read Dianna’s bio here and listen to a clip of a solo with Armonia Celeste here.

Find out much more about Dianna at her website. www.diannagrabowski.com


The greatest composer you never heard of

Posted in Programs and repertoire with tags , , , , , , , on February 8, 2012 by armoniaceleste

The composers of the music for Armonia Celeste are not yet common names among concertgoers. This is unfortunate, as the quality of their music and contributions to the history of music is often enormous. It is especially true of Luigi Rossi, the prime composer for Armonia Celeste’s current concert and forthcoming recording.

Rossi was born in southern Italy in the town of Torremaggiore, and apparently received his early training in Naples under Giovanni de Macque.  However, where he really made his mark was in Rome, where he served several patrons, including Cardinal Antonio Barberini.

Facade of the Barberini Palace

The Barberinis were great patrons of the arts, and Rossi’s first opera, Il Palazzo Incantato (The Enchanted Palace) was written for them in 1642. In 1645, the Baberinis were forced to leave Rome, and relocated temporarily in France under the protection of Jules Mazarin. Under his influence and that of the Barberinis, Rossi produced another opera, Orfeo; though long, this opera has a great deal of wonderful music (and received a fine production at the Boston Early Music Festival in 1997). Rossi returned to Rome for a final time in 1649, and died a few years later in 1653.

Although these two operas were significant, the major part of Rossi’s output was within the realm of the cantata, a repertoire that numbers around 400 pieces. These pieces are composed in a great variety of styles and for various numbers of performers. The greatest share of them is for solo soprano, but there are a number of duets, trios, and quartets, which make the music obvious for the three sopranos of Armonia Celeste.

Earlier in the century, there was a division of styles — the more serious monody madrigals that were first championed by Giulio Caccini, and the more metrical “aria” style, often written in strophic dance forms. Rossi was able to take these styles and combine them within a single piece, giving it greater variety and often length. He was always aware of the text and its needs for a musical interpretation. Where the libretto demanded that the listener understand the story or meaning, he would use the monody or a freer, more reciting style. Where the meaning was lighter or more universal, the more metrical styles took precedence. Rarely do these styles last longer than a minute before the ear is refreshed and the mind becomes interested in different music. Some pieces use strophic variation — that is, the libretto is basically organized in verses. This is the type of piece for which earlier composers would compose music for just the first verse and leave the underlay of the subsequent verses to the performer without changes in the music.  However, Rossi would essentially retain the music for each verse, but would pay attention to the subtle changes and needs of each, writing a few variations as needed. (“Fanciulla son io” on the Armonia Celeste website is one of these strophic variation pieces.)  This close attention to the details of the libretto is one of Rossi’s hallmarks, making the music interesting and intriguing to perform and hear.

Engraving of Cardinal Antonio Barberini, patron of Rossi

As harmony was not yet codifed into strict rules, he would often use harmonies that were quite advanced for the time, with added notes or dissonances foreign to the key or mode — wonderfully intriguing. Of special interest here might be the little chorus from Orfeo,Dormite begl’occhi” (which can also be heard on the Armonia Celeste website), where one finds a “d” added to a c minor chord and several other small but beautiful dissonances.

Another connection with Armonia Celeste was that Rossi’s wife, Costanza da Ponte, was a famous harpist considered to be one of the finest musicians of the time.  The use of harp to perform the continuo accompaniments was certainly a common practice for Rossi’s compositions in his time, and reflected in the performances by Armonia Celeste.

Very little of his music can be found in modern publications, and much of the music for Armonia Celeste comes from transcriptions from the original manuscripts.  As the number of works is so great, we are always finding new and exciting music to perform, a search that will continue for years.

Rossi became quite famous in his time, and there were numerous attestations to his compositional abilities. Perhaps the greatest tribute was by Giovanni Perti, who listed him with Carissimi and Cesti as one of the three “major lights of our profession,” an accolade that we think deserves current recognition as well.


Some background on our repertoire

Posted in Programs and repertoire with tags , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2012 by armoniaceleste

I have often been asked about the repertoire for Armonia Celeste and why we do this relatively unknown literature.  Actually, the answer is quite easy.  It is a fabulous and immense repertoire.  The wealth of material is sometimes almost overwhelming.  There are a number of high-level composers attached to the courts of Italy, especially the Barberini palaces. This includes people like Luigi Rossi, Mario Savioni, Marc’Antonio Pasqualini, Giacomo Carissimi, and Marco Marazzoli.

For example, Marazzoli has 379 cantatas extant, plus a raft of operas and oratorios.  Luigi Rossi has a similar amount, and cantatas from other composers number hundreds more.   These numbers just highlight the secular music.  When one adds in the sacred music by Carissimi, Foggia, and others, the music potentials become vast.  These numbers are basically only in Rome; adding the rest of Europe, the numbers grow even more.

Lutes, baroque guitar, and a small baroque triple harp

This is huge repertoire, but numbers only mean something if they are balanced by the quality of the music.  This is true in this repertoire.  The basic form is the cantata, not the 18th century style of Bach and others, but the emotional, secular style of the 17th century.  There is a large variety of styles and forces with numbers of high quality and interesting pieces.  Though the greatest share of them are for solo voice, primarily soprano, there are a number of duos, trios and even quartets.  This works well for Armonia Celeste.  Our three singers all have quite different and unique types of voices and styles; this allows a better fit to these different styles and ranges.  Mixing and matching these voices and styles into duets and trios makes for a more interesting program as well.

The instrumentalists of Armonia Celeste also add to the variety and match the different styles of composition.  Two of the primary continuo instruments, baroque triple harp and theorbo, are used for the bulk of the continuo realization, but different lutes and guitar can also be called upon when the need arises. The accompaniment of the harp must also have been common.  Marco Marazzoli was known as a harp player, and played the famed Barberini harp (of which our harpist plays a rare modern copy), and Luigi Rossi’s wife was also a virtuoso harpist.  Theorbo and lute players were common throughout Italy.  Kapsberger was even attached to the Barberini courts.

The ensemble of three women singers has a long history in Italy.  It started in the 1570’s with the “Concerto delle Donne” in Ferrara.  This ensemble became so famous that it was imitated in Modena, Florence (under Caccini), and other courts.  Though trios were still performed in the 17th century by women, the castrati also became primary singers.  Several of them were associated with the operas and other music of the courts, and it became natural for them to sing in the princely chambers when opera was not being performed.

This is the basis for the music for Armonia Celeste. Unfortunately, only a small amount of this repertoire is available in modern editions.  We are still combing the many manuscripts and prints of the time to bring some of these jewels to the 21st century.  This is part of the fun, recreating an exciting era of music for our audiences.


What it was like recording our debut CD!

Posted in Concerts, Recordings, Up Close & Personal with tags , on January 24, 2012 by armoniaceleste

Three of the five AC members share their thoughts on what it was like to record their debut CD, and talk about the concert in Maryland last week.

Lyle and Malcolm discuss mic placement

Paula: Impressions of a whirlwind week

Armonia Celeste really packed in a huge workload during our visit to Cumberland, Maryland. We spent a day of rehearsal “remembering” our old repertoire and polishing some new additions to the CD we were about to record. Then it was off to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church to spend three days recording. The people of St. Paul’s were so generous and welcoming in letting us use their beautiful space! Check out the photos!

Rebecca ponders her text

We were very fortunate to have two consummate professionals spearheading the recording project: Malcolm Bruno, our producer, came by plane, train, and automobile all the way from Wales (yes, as in the U.K.); Paul Vazquez, our recording engineer, made the drive from the NYC area. We marveled at the flattering sound they captured of the ensemble. Malcolm in particular is a genius in charmingly and diplomatically keeping our fatiguing selves moving smoothly forward on track, all the while helping us to find our best music-making. While it was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done (very long and intense days with few breaks, at maximum concentration, and all while propping up a very heavy huge Barberini harp—O, my aching back!), it was also some of the most rewarding work…and we said goodbye to Paul and Malcolm feeling the camaraderie that comes of having forged something special together.

Paula lays down a solo harp track

But no rest for the weary! We went from the super-intensity of recording to immediately preparing for our weekend concert with Mountainside Baroque. A last-minute substitution of the very game and sweet-voiced Josh Ruppenkamp as our tenor made everything fall into place. The church was nearly filled by a fabulously receptive audience. The program of sacred music was by turns powerful and joyful and spiritual…audience members (and your very own correspondent) reported getting chills at points during the music-making!  Our final chorus of “Plorate filii Israel” in Carissimi’s oratorio Jephte almost brought even the harpist to tears.  🙂  A wonderful conclusion to an astonishing week.


Sarah: Still Riding High after Armonia Celeste’s Week in Maryland!

What an amazing week in Maryland! I feel so uplifted by the music, the musicians, and the personalities we had the opportunity to work with, both in the three days of recording with Malcolm Bruno and Paul Vazquez, and in the concert with Mountainside Baroque where Armonia Celeste was joined by Ryan Mullaney, Josh Ruppenkamp, Les Anders, Pat Nordstrom, and Eric Kitchen.

Sarah and Dianna prepare to record a duet

I expected to feel a bit of a letdown after such an amazing week, but upon my return to Texas this week, I found many friends and colleagues (especially at Preston Hollow Presbyterian and Southeastern Oklahoma State University) anxious and excited to hear all about our week of recording and concerts. It is nice to be reminded that our fan base is so strong here in Texas, even when we are off performing in other parts of the country!  I already have a list of people anxiously awaiting the release of the CD.

At last! It's a wrap! (AC with Paul and Malcolm)

Now, even as I begin a new semester of teaching, I still have the music from last week following me from one task to the next.  At turns haunting and amusing, achingly beautiful and furious, there seems to be something to accompany my every mood!  I feel so blessed to have had this time, sharing amazing music with wonderful friends and colleagues, and I look forward to our upcoming concerts in June and beyond!


Lyle: Feedback on AC’s concert with Mountainside Baroque

It was a great week—confirmed my long-time feeling that the best music is made with the best musicians and the people you like and respect the best (all the people in Armonia).  The concert was also really, really fine.  The feedback has been very rewarding.  A few comments:

  • “Probably the best music that has been in that church since it was built!” (over 100 years ago)
  • “You certainly raised the bar for performance in Cumberland.  We’ve never heard anything that good.”
  • “I’m having Armonia withdrawal. Armonia was so special, the blend was fantastic!  When is the recording coming out?”
  • “So happy this is in Cumberland!”
  • “Could not believe you could get so many people from a small city out to a concert of music and composers that they have never heard.”
  • “I can’t wait for the next concert.”

    Lyle recording a theorbo solo

Fabulous audience in Cumberland, MD

Posted in Concerts, Up Close & Personal with tags on January 17, 2012 by armoniaceleste

A small city of 20,000 people in the mountains of Western Maryland turned out to be an ideal place for a chamber concert of baroque music.

Lutenist/theorbist Lyle Nordstrom after the concert

Armonia Celeste collaborated with Mountainside Baroque to perform Carissimi’s gorgeous oratorio “Jephte” as well as sacred music from the German college in Rome. The venue was the Shrine of Sts. Peter and Paul, a lovely Catholic church with a German heritage of its own, featuring intricate stained glass windows with German inscriptions.

Harpist Paula Fagerberg answers questions about her instrument

More than 150 people filled the church on a chilly afternoon although snow was predicted *and* a football game was scheduled. They gave the artists a warm standing ovation at concert’s end and flocked up to the performers with wonderful compliments and questions about the instruments. A reception followed with more mingling and friendly chat, making the whole afternoon a resounding success.

Guest artist Patricia Adams Nordstrom shows her viol to audience members

Armonia Celeste looks forward to coming back to the area in June 2012 to perform on the Penn Alps concert series. Watch this space for further details!

Our first CD finally underway!

Posted in Concerts, Recordings with tags , , , , , , on January 7, 2012 by armoniaceleste

We’re off to record our first CD, tentatively entitled “Udite Amanti–Lovers, Beware!: Music from the Seventeenth-Century Barberini Court.” This is the program that nearly won us the 2011 Early Music America/Naxos recording competition and which has been enthusiastically received with standing ovations everywhere we’ve played it–featuring emotional and exciting music by composers associated with the powerful Barberini family of Rome, including Carissimi, Marazzoli, and Rossi.

Armonia Celeste is thrilled to be working with the talented and experienced producer Malcolm Bruno on this recording, and we are confident and excited that we will have a very beautiful disc for your enjoyment later this year!

Concert next week in Cumberland, Maryland

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on January 4, 2012 by armoniaceleste

Armonia Celeste appears in Cumberland, Maryland, next week, as Mountainside Baroque presents “Benedicite Dominus” (Bless the Lord), the next concert in its “Before Bach” series. Carissimi’s famous oratorio “Jepthe” will be the concert centerpiece, with tenor Stephen Caldwell, baritone Ryan Mullaney, and bass Les Anders joining the three women’s voices of Armonia Celeste. Additional sacred music from Carissimi and other composers from the 17th-century Roman German College, the most famous musical establishment in Rome at that time, will comprise the rest of the concert.

Painting of the Barberini harp
Viola da gamba, harpsichord, and the instruments of Armonia Celeste (lute, theorbo, and Baroque triple harp) will support the voices in historically informed accompaniment. The harp featured in the concert, with its three sets of parallel strings, is an Italian copy of the famous Roman Barberini harp dating from ca. 1630. One of the largest and most elaborately decorated harps of the 17th century, it was depicted in paintings of the time.

The concert will take place at 4:00 PM on Sunday, January 15, 2012, at the Shrine of SS. Peter and Paul (125 Fayette St.). (Overflow parking in the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church parking lot across the street will be allowed for this performance.) Tickets ($10 general/$7 students) will be available at the door. For further information, call 301-338-2940 or e-mail umbrella@mindspring.com. For more information about Armonia Celeste, please visit http://www.armoniaceleste.com.

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