Cantata Profrana is a New York/New Haven based ensemble founded in 2012 by by violinist Jacob Ashworth and bass-baritone John Taylor Ward during their studies at Yale. The ensemble seeks to present thoughtful reimaginations of a variety of repertoire for new audiences. Equally at home in early music, standard classical repertoire, and newly composed works, it is not uncommon to see a Cantata Profana concert programming Caccini and Monteverdi alongside alongside works by such composers as Webern. With a dramatically gifted ensemble of singers and instrumentalists, the Cantata Profana’s productions are always colorful and engaging.
I find this ensemble to be groundbreaking in several ways. The most obvious to me is their commitment to programming old and new music, rather than specializing as an early music group or a new music group, something that I feel is pretty standard in the US. What is particularly interesting about their broad repertoire isn’t just that Cantata Profana performs both early and new music, but that they will often combine works from these arenas in the same concert. For example, a recent project by Cantata Profana paired Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. While these two operas hold much in similar (both tell the stories of two tragic women scorned by love and ending their own lives), one would not expect to see a 19th century bel canto masterpiece and a 17th century English opera performed back to back. Another great example of their innovative programming ideas involves a recital of Purcell, Ives, Sondheim, and Taylor Swift. This is even more outside the box than pairing Lucia and Dido, which at least come out of the same tradition of western art music. This song recital crosses genre lines that we consider to be irreconcilable much of the time.
All of this important to the future of classical music because it makes classical music accessible to audiences in a very real way. Presenting Lucia and Dido in the same program brings opera goers interested in two different areas of music together, and introduces them to a wider variety of style and genre within the arena of opera. Cantata Profrana’s song recital combining Purcell, Ives, Sondheim, and Taylor swift allows new audiences to see that classical music does not have to be an inaccessible, hoity-toity artform that turns its nose up to musical theater and pop music. And it tells classical music lovers that it’s ok to listen to enjoy the music of Purcell as well as the music of Taylor Swift. Cantata Profana breaks down the walls that divide pop music and classical music culture, and creates an environment where music (not classical music and pop music, but music) is for everyone. Even a recent concert of Handel arias turned into a drag show demonstrates that all music can be festive and fun. Cantata Profana actively shows that classical music need not be limited to a formal concert hall and pop music limited to lowbrow venues.