The Newberry Consort not only prides itself on maintaining a connection to the past through performing rarely heard early music. We also are constantly looking to the future by inviting young artists to perform with us to gain valuable mentorship experience, so we help ensure early music is remembered for generations to come.
For our upcoming concert in January, featuring the music of medieval German composer Oswald von Wolkenstein, we have invited Allison Monroe to be part of our Young Artist Mentorship Program.
Allison is currently pursuing her doctorate in Historical Performance Practice at Case Western Reserve University, where she plays violin, viola, treble viol, recorder, rebec, vielle, and sings in Early Music Singers. She holds a BA in violin performance from the University of Maryland and a masters in viola performance from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. This spring, she will present her final lecture recital exploring the use of bowed instruments in accompanying medieval monophonic song.
We caught up with Allison to ask her a few questions about her love of early music and performing with the Newberry Consort.
Q: How old were you when you first started playing violin and how did you get interested in early music?
A: I began playing the violin when I was four. I wanted to play because I had several aunts who were violinists. Of course, as soon as I realized it was actually work, I wanted to quit. Really the only reason I continued was that my parents wouldn’t let me give up.
My love of early music also comes from my parents’ influence. Before I was even born, they went to a free performance (free being the primary draw for a poor student couple) by the Waverly Consort at Emory University. After this, albums of early music became a frequent item on their library checkout list, and I grew up listening to not only the Waverly Consort but also the Baltimore Consort, the Boston Camerata, Hesperus, and choral groups including Chanticleer and the King’s Singers. I knew I wanted to play this music, but I didn’t know where or how to start. Throughout many years and two degrees (in modern violin and viola) I looked for ways to play these early repertories, most of which failed. It really wasn’t until I started studying Historical Performance Practice at Case Western Reserve University that I finally had the opportunity to pursue the music I’d been wanting to play all along.
Q: What is different about playing the early instruments vs. modern ones?
A: Even before I played anything other than the violin, I always considered myself simply a musician for whom the violin was only a medium. I enjoy exploring various instruments and their unique timbres, capabilities, and repertoires. For example, I love the medieval soundworld as heard in the nasal, whining tone of the rebec and the resonant throatiness of the vielle, an aesthetic which modern Western audiences have forgotten. Perhaps because of its relative technical ease, I find myself able to focus more on musicality in performing early music while remaining physically more relaxed than on the modern violin. Most importantly, I relish the level of engagement in the creative process that a performer takes when working in these repertoires, where very limited notation can only convey a vague representation of the sound it attempts to capture. This gives me great freedom to make musical choices, some planned beforehand but many improvised in the moment.
Q: What interests you about this project?
A: I’m particularly looking forward to playing some of David Douglass’s arrangements of vocal pieces for instrumental ensemble. The program follows a sort of life cycle threaded together by the verses of one recurring piece, giving it a rounded cohesiveness. Such thoughtful programming allows the audience to hear not just an assortment of music but to make sense of it in meaningful and more concrete ways. Also, I don’t know this repertory very well so I am excited to become more familiar with it.
Q: What do you hope to gain by working with the Newberry Consort?
A: This is a tremendous learning opportunity for me. While I have studied medieval music academically, played it with other students, and been taught it by wonderful teachers and coaches, I find that the best way to learn is to play alongside experienced musicians. Getting to work with such legendary performers, titans in our field really, is ultimately the best training one can receive.
As I contemplate the ever-looming “life after school,” I both become increasingly excited planning all the musical endeavors I want to undertake and become increasingly nervous about if and how they will ever come to fruition. I suppose we always need mentors, but now more than ever I look to more experienced early music performers for guidance. Mentors lead by example: I can watch what they do on a conceptual level to plan a project, on a logistical level to work out all the details of ensuring that a concert will come together, and on a musical level to craft a beautiful and engaging program out of so many disparate parts. But mentors also take me by the hand, inviting me to come perform with them, introducing me to other musicians, passing on their wisdom in a thousand ways, treating me as a colleague, and generally encouraging me. I am so grateful for the opportunity to play with the Newberry Consort, for it is experiences like this that give me hope for my musical future.