In contrast to their rather inelegant name, the Suspicious Cheese Lords have a sumptuous, sophisticated sound. The all-male a capella ensemble performs centuries-old, never-before-recorded songs. Songs plucked from obscure piles in archives. Songs about love (requited and un-) that make grown men cry.
“We sing little-known masterpieces. We like to sing music that doesn’t suck,” said Clifton “Skip” West, founder of the Washington-based group whose name is a play on “Suscipe Quaeso Domine,” the title of a 16th-century choralwork. “We sing music that is exquisite in craftsmanship, in motion, that is completely organic in the sense that the only instruments are human voices.”
West stumbled on early music as a student at Howard University. Searching for background that wouldn’t distract him as he studied, he tuned into “Millennium of Music,” a program on classical WETA dedicated to the 1,000 years before Bach. “I was floored by the sound,” West said.
“The songs are about romantic love, divine love, love of God for the individual soul,” West continued. “I was hooked. As much as I loved Prince, his songs consisted of lyrics like, ‘Met a little girl named Nikki. Met her in a hotel lobby doing something with a magazine.’ Versus lyrics like, ‘Your tears fill my soul and blossom in my heart, and it makes me long for the sight of your golden hair.’ It is a bit more fulfilling.”
The Suspicious Cheese Lords and more than 30 other “early music” ensembles — both locals and visitors, choral and instrumental groups — are appearing during the month-long Washington Early Music Festival 2012. The biennial event, which runs through June 30, features 32 concerts, lectures and workshops dedicated to various aspects of early music — that is, music written before 1750, including music of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the baroque period.
“We don’t get large-scale-size audiences — not like jazz or hip-hop,” said Constance Whiteside, founder and director of the festival. But “we draw incredibly passionate and enthusiastic audiences.”
Whiteside is a harpist who has lived in both San Francisco and Oxford, England. “These are powerhouses of early music,” she said. “When I moved to Washington, I thought, ‘Washington is such a cosmopolitan city, but we have no early music festival. We should.’ ”
So, in 2004, Whiteside gathered other early musicians and created the festival, which began with about a dozen performances over a couple of weekends and quickly grew in participants and length. “There are so many excellent early-musical performers in the Washington area,” Whiteside said. “There was a demand among performers and audiences.” News of the festival spread by word of mouth and Web sites. “Audiences were enthusiastic,” Whiteside added. “We went three years in a row, so people knew we weren’t going to go away.” Then the festival went to an every-other-year schedule, to allow early-music lovers to travel to Boston’s also-alternating-year early music festival.
“Audiences said, ‘Two years; oh, no! How are we supposed to wait two years?’ ” Whiteside recalled. “So, on alternate years, we have a weekend.”
“This is a niche part of the classical music world,” said harpsichordist Joseph Gascho, who with recorder player Justin Godoy founded Harmonious Blacksmith in 2006. The Baltimore-based ensemble focuses on improvisation in Renaissance and baroque music. The improvisation in their concerts “gives a sense of someone on a tight wire,” Gascho said, “a little riskier than a normal concert.”
Early-music performers are often dedicated to staying true to the era during which the music was composed. They might play violins or harps with gut rather than synthetic string, which makes the sound throatier, or wind instruments and horns built with centuries-old valving systems, which make the music sound reedier.
Whiteside plays a re-creation of a 17th-century Italian baroque chromatic harp called an arpa doppia, which, she said, “has a string for every note you need, including sharp and flats,” she said. Her harp is strung with 75 gut strings in three rows. “You have to sometimes reach between the strings. It is like three-dimensional chess,” she said. “It really does change the way music sounds as opposed to playing on a modern harp.”
Another thing that changes the way the music sounds is where the music is performed. “This kind of music is best heard in . . . ‘wet’ spaces. By wet, I mean lots of echo,” says West. For that reason, the early music artists appear at historic churches throughout Washington. “These churches have the best acoustics, said West. “On a regular stage, the sound just goes up. You need a shell for this music.”
One such church is St. Mark’s Episcopal on Capitol Hill, which was completed in 1894 and is appreciated for the acoustics of its nave and the beauty of its stained-glass windows. Grammy-nominated lute player Ronn McFarlane recently appeared there. The lute, he told his listeners, was one of the most popular instruments of the Renaissance, so delicate it was intended to be played for an audience of no more than two or three “at night, when the sounds of the city of Paris had died down.”
Then, as McFarlane plucked the strings of his lute, the music resonated throughout the nave and the sunlight was colored as it streamed through the windows. When he finished, the 70 or so listeners applauded thunderously. “That was lovely,” said audience member Tracy Moos. “It was like being in another century.”
The Washington Early Music Festival, which celebrates music from the medieval, Renaissance and baroque periods, takes place in churches and other venues throughout the Washington area through June 30. Tickets for concerts are $15-$20 and available at the door. Workshop prices vary. Highlights are listed below. A full schedule can be found at www.earlymusicdc.org/schedule.html .
2 - 3 p.m.: “The Art of Passion,” a guided tour at the National Gallery of Art by senior lecturer David Gariff. Tour is free but size is limited. Sign up online. West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW.
7:30 p.m.: Ensemble Gaudior concert: “Affetti musicali: A Potpourri of Passion.” St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill, 313 Second St. SE.
1:30 p.m.: The Vivaldi Project’s Institute for Early Music on Modern Instruments presents: “Seminar on Performance Practice” of the 17th and 18th centuries. Hand Chapel at George Washington University, Mount Vernon Campus, 2100 Foxhall Rd. NW.
8 p.m. : Friends of Fasch: “The Many Moods of the Minor Mode.” All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, 2300 Cathedral Ave. NW.
10 a.m.: Baroque dance class. Hand Chapel at George Washington University - Mount Vernon Campus, 2100 Foxhall Rd. NW.
7:30 p.m.: Baroque dance performance, with Paige Whitley-Bauguess and Thomas Baird. Post Hall at George Washington University — Mount Vernon Campus, 2100 Foxhall Rd. NW.
10 a.m.: Clinic for string players. Hand Chapel at George Washington University — Mount Vernon Campus, 2100 Foxhall Rd. NW.
5 p.m.: Chamber orchestra performance. Post Hall at George Washington University — Mount Vernon Campus, 2100 Foxhall Rd. NW.
8 p.m.: The Suspicious Cheese Lords concert, “La Pucelle: Celebrating Joan of Arc.” St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 118 Third St. SE.
1 p.m.: Mark Adler and Atsuko Watanabe, “The Harpsichord: Touch, Try, and Learn.” St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 118 Third St. SE.
4 p.m.: Greater Washington/Baltimore Chapter of the Viola da Gamba Society, “Viol Petting Zoo.” St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 118 Third St. SE.
8 p.m.: Armonia Nova concert, “Piena di Passione.” St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 118 Third St. SE.
1 p.m.: The Second Circle – An Ensemble Technique Workshop with Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek of Anonymous 4. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 118 Third St. SE.
1 p.m.: La Bella Musica: Playing & Improvising on Medieval Melodies workshop led by Constance Whiteside, director of Armonia Nova. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 118 Third St. SE.
7:30 p.m. : Le Tendre Amour Concert: “A Musical Journey Through Ancient Scripture.”
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 118 Third St. SE.
8 p.m.: Atsuko Watanabe, “Harpsichord Music With Passion.” Keith Reas, organ, “To Touch, To Dance, To Sing!” St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 118 Third St. SE.
8 p.m.: Modern Musick concert. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 118 Third St. SE.
8 p.m.: Arco Voce Concert, “Behold the Blossoming Rose!” St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 118 Third St. SE.
8 p.m. : Finale. Hesperus plays “The Hunchback.” Lon Chaney’s 1927 silent classic with a live score of medieval music. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 118 Third St. SE.