Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Joyous Early Music-Making

Joyous Early Music-Making

Members of the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble
Created and led by Mark Cudek since 1988, the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble celebrates its 35th anniversary.

This year, the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble (PRE) celebrates its 35th anniversary with its spring program, If Music Be the Food of Love, a special collaboration with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Along with actors from the company, about 20 instrumentalists and vocalists from the ensemble will recreate musical scenes from five of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry IV Part II, Romeo & Juliet, Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night.

Hundreds of Peabody alumni have had similar performance experiences with this ensemble, playing and singing songs from the Renaissance era (around 1415 to 1625), from written music that only contains the bare minimum of information. This creates a recipe for joyous music-making, allowing early musicians the freedom to improvise and make artistic decisions about tempo, dynamics, and even instrumentation—Director Mark Cudek’s primary goal when he founded the ensemble in 1988.

“I thought it was really important for Conservatory students to have fun making music,” says Cudek, who plays the cittern, lute, viol, recorder, Renaissance and Baroque guitars, and percussion, and instructs the ensemble today alongside Adam Pearl (BM ’99, Piano Performance; MM ’01, DMA ’09, Harpsichord Performance), the ensemble’s vocal coach. “There’s also no greater pleasure than passing the torch and seeing your students turn professional, and I’m thrilled and proud to say that our alumni have played with virtually every important early music ensemble in the country.”

Peabody Renaissance Ensemble players have gone on to become members and guest artists of more than 30 ensembles, Cudek notes, including Apollo’s Fire, Boston Camerata, Folger Consort, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and Waverly Consort. And alumni of the ensemble have served and in some cases continue to serve on faculties of at least 10 universities.

Many have also remained connected to Peabody: Cudek, who is a faculty member and former chair of the Historical Performance Department, performs professionally with alumni through the Peabody Consort, an invitation-only ensemble composed entirely of former Peabody Renaissance Ensemble musicians. He also hires alumni in his role as artistic director of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival.

Brian Kay (BM ’13, MM ’15, Early Music), a recording artist and per- former who plays the lute and lives in Akron, Ohio, was a member of the ensemble from 2009 to 2015. Today, he is a core member and artistic leadership fellow with Apollo’s Fire, and has won the 2019 Best Classical Solo Vocal Album Grammy with this ensemble for their record, Songs of Orpheus. Kay also records soundtracks for Netflix programs, including the fantasy drama show The Witcher, and for silent film projects.

Kay recalls being impressed with how Cudek arranged and “breathed life” into early music that required some interpretation to perform, and then worked with musicians at various skill levels to produce strong performances. Kay says he draws on this lesson today, particularly for his current endeavor, a recording project of the songs from Shakespeare’s plays, which involves more than 20 musicians who are based around the world.

“There’s also no greater pleasure than passing the torch and seeing your students turn professional, and I’m thrilled and proud to say that our alumni have played with virtually every important early music ensemble in the country.”

— Mark Cudek, director of the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble


“The experience in PRE trained me to go deeper than just getting the notes right and to try to find a balance within an ensemble,” says Kay, who is also on the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Case Western Reserve University. “I’m having to do the same thing today, which is take everyone’s disparate parts that they’ve recorded and bring them together and make everything have a good flow. In a lot of ways, it’s really similar to what Mark does with the Renaissance Ensemble.”

Josh Lee (BM ’00, GPD ’00, Early Music) discovered the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble by chance. He came to Peabody to study the double bass, but he had also become interested in the viola de gamba (viol), a bowed instrument with six or seven strings resembling the cello. He began to take viol lessons at Peabody along with his double bass classes.

Then, in his second year, Lee was pulled into the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble when Cudek needed a viol player for a performance that highlighted the music of the Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and subsequently migrated around Europe and Northern Africa. Lee says he loved that Renaissance music draws on history and research to create emotional and artistic moments on the stage. He changed his major to Early Music and played with the ensemble from 1996 to 2000.

The spirit of community that Cudek built within the ensemble is what Lee remembers most. “When we were on stage, Mark got us to look at each other and connect,” says Lee, who teaches the viol privately in San Francisco. “Now I make sure when I work with others, they are people I can connect with as humans.”

Since his days at Peabody, Lee has played the viol with more than a dozen ensembles and has recorded five albums, including Unaccompanied: Vol. Two and Vol. One and A Portrait of Melancholy. He has recently been focused more on creative work with singer/songwriter Ben Cooper, a partnership that has led to him co-writing scores for TV shows including The Blacklist and for advertisements for companies including Google.

From his current career vantage point, Lee says, “Some of the most professional behavior I’ve encountered in the field of music was in the PRE with Mark. He got a lot out of us, and we wanted to give it. I’m forever indebted to those days.”

— Jennifer Walker