Musicians launch large chamber music collective

Cantata Profana features atypical combinations of instrumentalists and vocalists from the School of Music, Institute of Sacred Music and Yale College.
Cantata Profana features atypical combinations of instrumentalists and vocalists from the School of Music, Institute of Sacred Music and Yale College. Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

On Saturday night, an unusually large chamber music collective will give its debut performance.

Cantata Profana, organized by Jacob Ashworth MUS ’13, brings together instrumentalists and vocalists from the School of Music, the Institute of Sacred Music and Yale College. As an extracurricular student group, the ensemble provides School of Music and ISM students with the rare opportunity to perform outside of their curricular music groups and to work on the underperformed pieces written for atypical combinations of instrumentalists and singers.

But these unusual chamber groups — ensembles of five to 15 players — are unusual despite their rich repertoire of 20th-century music, said Ashworth, who also conducts Cantata Profana. Since 1913, when Arnold Schoenberg premiered “Pierrot Lunaire,” a piece written for soprano narrator and a chamber group, classical music has exploded with compositions for large-sized chamber groups with vocalists, he explained. But since these works require a group size in between typical chamber ensembles and full-size orchestras, the music is rarely played, and few groups worldwide are dedicated to the repertoire’s performance.

The ensemble also provides the extracurricular opportunity often missing from music students’ “transient” two years at Yale, Ashworth said. The musicians know each other from previous collaborations and wanted a way to maintain their relationships, he said. He added that his long-term goal is to establish a “core” of committed members who could continue the ensemble after graduation as a professional group with a unique focus on large-set chamber music, Ashworth said.

The group’s first concert this weekend will feature selections from a 20th-century opera about the madness of King George III, “Eight Songs for a Mad King” by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and baroque music by Monteverdi and Handel. Pianist and harpsichordist Daniel Schlosberg MUS ’13 said the program seeks to challenge conventional assumptions that the Institute of Sacred Music focuses on older works and the School of Music deals with more contemporary selections. In choosing both baroque music and 20th-century music with baroque influence, the ensemble is highlighting the long-standing tradition of large chamber music ensembles with vocalists, Ashworth said.

“They did not just come out of nowhere,” Ashworth said.

“Eight Songs for a Mad King” is about a monarch who descends into madness, based on King George III’s documented wild rants. Ashworth said madness is rarely represented in classical music except in “stylized” ways, and the work seeks to provide an authentic display of the king’s mad bouts, which would include 58-hour-long monologues. The drama is scored for baritone voice, flute, piccolo, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin and cello. The Monteverdi madrigal features five voices, two violins, a cello, a guitar and a harpsichord, while the Handel trio sonata features two violins, a cello and a harpsichord — all unusual combinations.

The ensemble will give its second performance in early May, Ashworth said. A possible theme is “Paris and New Haven, 1913,” which would showcase musical dialogue between composers in both cities.

Davies is currently the master of the queen’s music, the classical-music equivalent of the British poet laureate.

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