Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

New Ensembles Expand Performance Opportunities 

Velvet Brown grew up playing soprano bugle in a street band in Annapolis, Maryland, part of a family tradition. Her father played in a brass street band, and her grandfather drummed in a segregated U.S. Navy big band in the 1920s and founded a street band after serving in the Navy. This fall, Brown, a tuba faculty artist, is bringing the tradition to Peabody with the New Orleans Jazz Ensemble

Brass students rehearsing for the New Orleans Jazz Ensemble
A rehearsal of the New Orleans Jazz Ensemble

One of several new ensembles this year, the band coalesced through Brown’s work on Peabody’s curriculum task force and strategic planning committees. “We are exploring how Peabody is representing the world and culture,” she says. “The New Orleans brass band tradition gives our classical brass players a chance to explore this type of music.”

Plans include fall and spring concerts; guest lecturer Maria Cristina Fava, an expert on 20th-century American music; and, yes, playing in the streets of Baltimore as outreach. “Street bands are a worldwide tradition,” says Brown, who was in New Orleans this past August to shadow Ronell Johnson, a brass player in New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band. “I want to bridge it all together — jazz, classical, and commercial — with our ensemble.”

Beth Willer, Director of Choral Studies, reached way back for inspiration for the Peabody Camerata, a select soprano-alto vocal ensemble for graduate and undergraduate musicians to perform music for treble voices, from the 12th century to 21st-century repertoire. “The wealth of talented treble voices at Peabody is incredible, and now we will have an ensemble to showcase that talent,” she says.

Students sing around a piano
A rehearsal of the NEXT Ensemble

Willer says little was written for women, save for music from convents in the medieval, Renaissance, and baroque periods; Italian Baroque courts; the Venetian ospedali (orphanages); and the societal women’s choruses of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It wasn’t until the late 20th and 21st centuries that music for treble ensemble began to expand.

Peabody Camerata will explore existing, often lesser-known, repertoires from these historical periods, reimagine music originally not intended for performance by women’s or treble voices, and collaborate with composers to create new work. 

In 2007, Willer founded the Lorelei Ensemble, an all-women, internationally acclaimed vocal octet committed to the expansion of this repertoire, where she continues to serve as artistic director. “This is a multi-generational movement to change and grow this particular repertoire, and I’m thrilled to have the treble voices of Peabody joining ensembles like Lorelei in this work,” she says.

Willer also founded Peabody’s new NEXT Ensemble, a mixed vocal ensemble of advanced graduate and undergraduate musicians. “We’re working on the edge of ‘classical’ music to expand and re-think the vocal ensemble art form,” she says. 

NEXT Ensemble focuses on what’s next for Peabody vocalists, post-graduation. “By specializing in the performance of new, early, cross-disciplinary, and transformative repertoire, NEXT Ensemble reimagines what it means to be a collaborative, creative vocal artist in the 21st century,” Willer says. “There’s been an explosion of ensemble singing in the last 15 years, and we need to prepare our students for that market.”

The Peabody Camerata and NEXT Ensemble will perform two concerts in the fall and in the spring, including new works by Paola Prestini (BM ’95, Composition) (Camerata), and by Natalie Draper (DMA ’17, Composition) (NEXT). In April, Pamela Z, a performance artist best known for her compositions for voice and live electronic processing, will join both ensembles for a week-long residency made possible by the Levi Fund. 

Students involved with the Peabody Laptop Ensemble, which began in January 2021, combine acoustic and electronic instruments and various technological devices (laptops, phones, and Arduinos) to make music unique to this century. The ensemble is open to undergraduate and graduate students in Composition and Computer Music and undergraduate Music for New Media students. It is co-directed by Computer Music faculty artists Margaret Schedel (MM ’01,Computer Music Composition)and Niloufar Nourbakhsh

Students gather around audio equipment with their laptops
Members of the Laptop Ensemble have their first lesson with the hemispherical speakers the ensemble will connect to for multi-laptop performances.

“[Last winter] our students were in front of their laptops 24/7 and interacting with it as a creative tool was a good thing,” notes Nourbakhsh, co-founder of Stony Brook University’s laptop ensemble Synthbeats, which is now the independent ensemble Decipher. At Peabody, a concert presented last spring on YouTube included ensemble members playing individual and group pieces. “The students loved it — it was something new and strange, and interacting in a creative way is really satisfying,” says Nourbakhsh.

This year, the Laptop Ensemble class and twice-a-semester concerts are in person. “Being in person with the way the sound radiates and bounces off the walls gets us closer to more present sound,” says Schedel.

She recently secured a grant to purchase hemispherical speakers for the ensemble, which other musicians will be able to check out at Peabody’s Arthur Friedheim Library. “Laptops are part of our daily life, and to ignore them as part of music-making seems ridiculous,” Schedel says. “It’s another tool in a musician’s skill set.” 

Sarah Achenbach