Feature Article - A Talk with Lionheart - April, 2002

Jason Serinus



In eight short years, the six men who comprise Lionheart have built an enviable reputation as one of the premier a cappella vocal ensembles in the United States. Though the New York City-based ensemble is known primarily for performances of Early Music, they have also collaborated with instrumental ensembles and dance companies, and performed several important premieres of contemporary repertoire.

Currently in the midst of their second cross-country joint tour with Anonymous 4, the superb women's a cappella vocal quartet whose recordings of medieval repertoire have won international accolades, Lionheart has recently released their third CD, Palestrina: Soul Of Rome (Koch). With singing distinguished by an angelic smoothness and purity of conviction, the group's resonant richness makes it hard to believe that only six voices are involved.

After hearing the CD, I was so impressed with the singing that, in late February, 2002, I conducted an extended phone conversation with Lionheart (Jeffrey Johnson, Lawrence Lipnik, John Olund, Richard Porterfield, Kurt-Owen Richards, and Michael Ryan-Wenger). I have included information on the group's CDs at the end of the transcript.

In April and May, Lionheart will perform in Potsdam, New York; Kansas City, Missouri; University of Illinois; Knoxville, Tennessee; Durham, North Carolina; Morrow, Georgia; Iowa City, Iowa; Stanford, California, and St. Louis, Missouri. Complete touring information can be found at: http://members.aol.com/bernsarts/homepage/liondisc.htm and http://www.chantboy.com/lionheart/

Below is the interview:

JS: How did Lionheart form?

Kurt: Three or four people assembled to sing chant. We were getting to sing chants in church, but they weren't the optimal conditions for music making.

You were all members of the same church?

John: No, various churches. But we'd sung together in various ensembles, combinations, and churches over the years. Some of us have known each other for 15 years. In a sense, we picked each other.

Were some of you in other professional ensembles prior to forming Lionheart?

John: You name it in the Early Music field: The Waverly Consort, Bach Ensemble, Concert Royal, New York Ensemble for Early Music, Pomerium, The Voices of Ascension. Also modern music, pop music, musical theater.

Why did you leave some of these groups to form Lionheart?

Kurt: I for one didn't really leave another gig for Lionheart. I HAVE, however, limited my involvement with other ensembles simply because of time constraints. Lionheart satisfies my need to make music (almost)
completely. It is most certainly by far the most satisfying musical experience, probably because the partnership/collaboration of every aspect of it is so intense and productive.

John: I did have to make a choice. I had been singing with The Waverly Consort for 16 seasons and was able to juggle both for a couple years. However, when Lionheart got a comparable Christmas tour one year, I had to choose. At that point, the choice was simple. Lionheart satisfies nearly all my singing needs, and the Ensemble and business belongs to the 6 of us.

You formed Lionheart eight years ago. Did you have a performing venue from the start?

Rick: We got a residency in St. Ignatius of Antioch, an Episcopal Church on the Upper West Side. As you can imagine, real estate in New York is not easy to come by, so having a place to work has helped us a lot.

And you're maintaining your residency there?

Rick: Yes. I had sung in the choir there for many years before we formed.

What is your repertoire?

Kurt: Renaissance, medieval, and contemporary, with the biggest emphasis on medieval. There was always the possibility that we would branch out, and we're doing more Renaissance music now.

Larry: We found over the years that the development of our ensemble suggested new kinds of repertoire. Contemporary music really came after we solidified the notion of our sound. Some composers who have come to hear us in performance have written music that reflects the kind of singing we do and the blend we create.

Tell us about your recordings.

Jeffrey: Our first recording was entitled My Fayre Ladye (Nimbus). It was English Tudor music and some sarum chant. The second was Paris 1200: Music of Perotin and Leonin (Nimbus), very early chant and polyphony. Palestrina: Soul of Rome (Koch) is our third recording.

Since Nimbus has folded, I guess the earlier discs are hard to find.

Rick: We just heard that the producer of Paris 1200 is one of several individuals who have purchased Nimbus and will continue production and distribution of our CDs.

What would you like people to know about your music and performing?

Larry: We all feel very strongly about presenting the music in a very immediate, relevant way. We love performing Early Music, but in a way that can be easily appreciated by contemporary audiences. We don't want to turn people off or take a didactic approach; we don't want to “teach” people just for the sake of teaching. We love the music, and feel that though it was written hundreds of years ago, it's as relevant today as it was then.

People seem to go away from our concerts with a new appreciation for this music. There isn't a barrier of time, or a certain level cognoscenti who are the only ones who can appreciate this kind of music.

John: Several years ago we were playing in Cape May, New Jersey. For some reason, some of the publicity gave the impression that we were a doo-wop group. We didn't know what to expect, but the church was packed. After the first few pieces, a couple of people left, but the rest stayed, and a good number had come to hear doo-wop. And they loved it. Because what they heard was basically the same thing, in that it was an honest performance. Very often people come to music unsure of what they're going to hear. They may never choose to attend early music vocal concerts, but they end up in our audience. They're never really sure of what they're going to hear. I think one of the things they can see is that we're not just going through the paces. We're really baring our souls up there.

Kurt: Our Paris 1200 program – our second CD of 13th century French chants from the very beginnings of polyphony – has just surprised the heck out of me. This is the stuff that bored me to tears in college; I was just hoping in Music 101 that we'd get past it and to something else. But we consistently get houses packed full of people just standing up and cheering at the end of these concerts. I can't believe it in one way, but then I know the music, so I can believe it.

What stopped it from being boring for you?

Kurt: Knowing it. Really getting to dig into it and sing it with other people who had the same intensity of wanting to discover what's in there.

In college, did you listen to bad old recordings? If so, what's the difference between those performances and yours?

Kurt: They were bad old performances. The difference is between just singing the notes.

Jeffrey: All of us have had lives in the second half of the 20th century where we grew up listening to a lot of different kinds of music. We were all educated in contemporary and classical music, as well as pop music and jazz. We've been able to invest a lot of that experience in this very old material and show that it's really not boring. It really has early roots in jazz and improvisation. It's not a museum piece; it really is as exciting as theatrical drama or opera. And we've all stayed with it because it has that kind of attraction for us.

When you initially formed, were there six of you? And has your membership remained constant?

Larry: Forming an ensemble of six was the plan from the beginning.

Michael: I'm the new kid on the block. I moved to New York City four years ago. As of May 2002, I will have been with the group two full years.

Jeffrey: It's hard to believe, but five of the six of us are the original members. That's pretty amazing for a New York ensemble, where everyone has their separate careers. In singing, it's really unusual for people to stick together because there are so many opportunities elsewhere. In general I think the business encourages people more toward solo careers than ensemble work.

Michael: It's a very transient city. I think people expect to move within several years. It's rare that you are asked to make a commitment for five years or more.

Larry: Also, we had something that we felt really committed to. We collectively believed in the product. Since our first concert, we've been getting the kind of feedback and acknowledgement that has really kept the fires burning under us.

John: In fact, when we had to replace the person who left, it was very difficult. We were right in the middle of the season, and had a lot of concerts. Rather than try to make a snap decision on someone new, we used several other people for a couple of years

Anon: …we went through them…

John: Finally, when we had some time, we carefully auditioned people…

Rick: And finally found Michael.

What contemporary composers have written for you?

Rick: Julia Wolfe wrote a piece based on taped interviews with us. We sang to a tape of us answering questions about brotherhood and brotherly love.

Larry: The piece premiered at the Next Wave Festival at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music].

Rick: Julia is one of the founders of Bang on the Can. John Fitz Rogers wrote a piece for us that was…

Jeffrey: …commissioned by the Music at the Anthology series, the new music series that Philip Glass is Executive Producer of.

Have you toured much?

Kurt: A lot. We've been all over the US and to Europe several times. We've sung in London's Covent Garden Festival at the Temple Church, London's South Bank Festival; Amsterdam and two cities outside of Amsterdam; Cologne; Stuttgart; Regensburg; Brussels; Trento; Ghent in Belgium; Limoges where Richard the Lionheart met his end; and beautiful Bolzano in the Italian Alps.

Chanticleer seems to be the only full-time vocal ensemble in the US. What's your situation?

Larry: We'd like to be full-time. We're doing more and more concerts, and moving toward the goal of doing a full season in New York and touring the rest of the year.

Are you having success during this difficult time for classical music?

John: We're holding our own. We've had a very consistent career. We started off quickly, and things got rolling. From the beginning, we knew what we wanted and the sound we wanted, and we were happy to find it early on. Our goal right away was to be professional and travel and hopefully make some money as well. The fact that we love the music was a given. Ever since then, we've had a consistent season every year.

Larry: The thing that has been real exciting, and that is responsible in part for keeping us together, is that we've been able to have the success and be true to our goals for the group. It's led not just to our own performing but also to collaborating with some other wonderful groups.

What kind of sound were you striving for?

Rick: We all had an idea in our own minds of what we wanted the group to sound like. When we got together, we discovered that each of us was able to sing in his own natural way and blend into the ensemble. The experience of making the music became very gratifying because it all sounded good.

John: The fact that there was no director standing over us saying, “Sing brighter, sing softer” freed us to work in a more organic way. We direct ourselves by listening and feeling what was evolving from the ensemble. Obviously there are little choices to make along the way, but basically that just evolved.

Michael: Coming into the group later on, I joined five voices that were already a cohesive and complete entity. They chose to add me because they were missing the ability to do repertoire that called for six voices. But it has always been very obvious to me that we all have attuned ears to each other. I already heard the sound as soon as I got here. It was simply a case of having the ability to add one more timbre to that mix. It's amazing, when we sing polyphony, the type of sound we create and how many voices we actually sound like we have. It sounds much grander than six…

Michael: …and we can all come down to a single voice. When I hear that on playback, I'm simply amazed that we have the ability to make such beautiful sounds together. It's not like we really try to manipulate our voices to sound that way; it's just what happens together as family.

There are plenty of distinguished Early Music vocal groups. Were you trying to create a sound that was different than those groups?

Kurt: We were not consciously making comparisons. We really wanted to bring whatever we could bring to the mix. I think there are two reasons why we sound the way we do. One is that we've all been doing chamber singing for many years combined. The other is that we started by singing nothing but chant for week after week, month after month [laughter]. So we really practiced becoming one voice. It wasn't until we got that sound pretty well solidified that we branched out into polyphony.

Rick: Our democratic organization – the fact that all six of us are directors of the organization – is reflected in our sound. I don't think we would have the sound we do have were it not for this.

Do you record yourselves and listen to get a sense of what you're doing?

Kurt: We do. Not a lot, but we do.

John: We listen very carefully as we sing. But it is good to have a reference outside the ensemble.

Jeffrey: Because of our democratic organization, in a lot of ways I think we're closer to the [leaderless] Orpheus Chamber Ensemble than we are to other singing groups.

Larry: Part of selecting each other is that temperamentally we work well together. Part of getting a certain blend is how our temperaments fit together.

How old are you?

[All at once, laughing]: John is the oldest at 50, and Michael is the youngest at 38. The two tenors have the same birthday.

Did you get feedback from others as you created your ensemble sound, or did you just rely on yourselves?

John: The latter. We got nice reviews early on –- I have to say that we've always gotten nice reviews in New York and elsewhere – that would say what they thought about our sound, and we would usually agree. But I don't think we ever said, “Okay. This is what people are hearing; let's go for that.'”

Jeffrey: The six of us get pleasure from singing. The activity of singing is pleasurable, and singing together is pleasurable; that's in a sense where our sound comes from.

Chanticleer just made the cover of Gramophone. How have they treated your recordings?

Jeffrey: They've done pretty well by us. I don't know if they've heard our most recent disc.

Kurt: BBC Magazine and Fanfare have also given us good reviews. In fact, I think we're on the back of Fanfare this month [February 2002].

When did you first tour Europe?

Kurt: We made our first two recordings in England with Nimbus, but we performed in Regensburg on our first tour maybe four years ago.

How did you make your contact with Nimbus?

John: A friend of ours is in the Kansas City Chorale – in fact Michael used to be in the Kansas City Chorale – and they were the first American group to record for Nimbus. Nimbus' producer then came to a concert of ours in New York.

How did you connect with Anonymous 4 and initiate joint concerts?

Larry: They're very similar to us in the way they were formed and the way they work.

Some of us have worked with some of them in other contexts. Some of us are also early music instrumentalists. I was in a trio with Susan Hellauer, now of Anonymous 4, in which she played cornetto and sackbut. I played the viol, and we both played early wind instruments as well as sang. We always remained very close, and musically very similar in our approach and aesthetic. That, along with the rest of us really feeling camaraderie and similar feelings about music, led us to find working together very gratifying.

Rick: This is our second tour with Anonymous 4. Two years ago, we toured together performing Ockeghem. Our current collaboration, “Gods and Mortals,” is taking us around the country. We've already done it at the Boston Early Music festival, and we hope to do it in New York next season when we find the right venue. The problem is that many Early Music venues in New York don't have the budget for this kind of program, and many don't have the right acoustic.

What acoustics do you prefer?

Kurt: In general we like “wet” acoustics, with a fair amount of reverb that really makes the chant shine…

As it does so well on your recording...

Kurt: Yes, the Roman Catholic Church of the Ascension on the Upper West Side was a perfect space to make that recording.

John: We've occasionally used electronic enhancement in certain concert halls, but we always hope for the wonderful stone church with great acoustics.

Larry: Last summer we mentioned in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, and the acoustics are phenomenal. We were thrilled.

John: Spivey Hall in Atlanta, which is the concert hall we'll perform in in April, also has wonderful acoustics.

Larry: When you have the right acoustic, the size of the hall doesn't matter. You can be in a big hall and feel intimate, or you can be in a small space and, if the acoustics aren't right, have difficulty making a connection.

Kurt: Two years ago, we performed with Anonymous 4 in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and that place is so huge that they had to use a kind of electronic enhancement to augment our sound for the people halfway back.

Did it work?

Rick: We were very impressed with it. I was skeptical at first, but I found they had worked it out very well.

Have you been in Northern California before?

John: We've been to Chico, Napa and Occidental by ourselves, and with Anonymous 4 in Stanford; we'd like to perform more there.

Has there been talk of doing a joint recording with Anonymous 4?

Larry: Both groups are hoping we can join together to record music from our current tour. When we tried to record the Ockeghem two years ago, it was problematic negotiating a recording while we were on Nimbus and they were with Harmonia Mundi.

Rick: The program “Gods and Mortals” is concerned with the Renaissance reception of ancient literature, and the way Italian Renaissance composers set texts from Roman and other writers. A lot of the music is settings of Virgil's Aeneid, which became in the Renaissance a sort of prototypical courtly love narrative. It's all about Aeneas becoming involved with Dido, Queen of Carthage, and then has to leave her to found Rome, and her terrible and suicide – it's all very melodramatic.

So it's secular music. Is there also some religious music on the program?

Larry: There's some deeply spiritual music, but it's all secular. The composers, Gesualdo, Monteverdi, Lassus, Petruci, Marenzio, and Rossi, represent the whole spectrum of the classical revival in Renaissance Italy from 1500-1600. You have composers reviving what they thought was a re-creation of rhythmic and poetic modes through music. Contrasted with the Ockeghem, the music is less intensely polyphonic. There's a lot more homophonic singing that really lets us explore the blends of both groups. It's mainly group ensemble. There's a lot of one on a part, and we mix both groups in almost everything. There is one piece solely for Lionheart, and one for Anonymous 4. Other than that, there's a seamless flow of the music and narrative, where the groups basically mix and match. We've already performed the concerts in Anchorage and Ogden, and will do more touring in beginning in March.

Had either group been to either of those places before?

Kurt: No. We had a very good audience reception; they really loved it.

John: They were both in fairly large halls, and we had a pretty good turnout.

Are you all Christian by faith, and do you all follow your respective religions, or are you more into the spiritual aspects of the music?

Jeffrey: We all come to this with our own private thoughts and experiences of our faith, values and beliefs. Although it informs what we do artistically, we don't generally have that as a foundation for the work that we do.

Have you been attracting many young people to your concerts?

Jeffrey: Yes. Oftentimes people who have never heard this kind of music before come up to us with their jaws dropped and say, “I've never heard anything like this. I had no idea that something like this even existed.”

Kurt: I think that music doesn't get better; it just gets different. The kind of music we sing has been so neglected for so long. There's so much there, in an overwhelming abundance. We're digging through it and making it come alive.

Where do you perform regularly?

Rick and John: We perform regularly at the Cloisters, and with Friends of Chamber Music in Kansas City.

Have your audiences been affected by the downturn in the economy? Here we often see more empty seats.

Jeffrey: We just did two concerts at the Cloisters in New York to sold out houses.

John: At least in New York, with what's happening here, 9/11 has brought the community together. People are going out to concerts and movies; they just want to get out and be with other people. I think it's been great for classical and Early Music.


Palestrina: Soul of Rome, Koch International Classics; Released November 2001
Running Time: 66:00; 3-7513-2 HI

Ave Maria - Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)
Kyrie: Missa in duplicibus mioribus I - Palestrina
Gloria: Missa in duplicibus mioribus I - Palestrina
Petrus beatus catenarum laqueos - Costanzo Festa (1490-1545)
Adoramus te - Palestrina
Credo: Missa in duplicibus mioribus I - Palestrina
Tibi Christe splendor Patris - Festa
Sanctus: Missa in duplicibus mioribus I - Palestrina
O regem caeli - Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)
Gloriosi principes terrae - Palestrina
Agnus Dei: Missa in duplicibus mioribus I - Palestrina
Surrexit pastor bonus - Palestrina
Litanae de Beata Virgine Maria - Palestrina
Ave Maria - Victoria

Christmas Around the Country II, NPR Classics; NPR's Performance Today; released September 1999;
Total running time: 70:10

Lionheart's cut: In the Bleak Midwinter - 3:05

Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music - Disc 1, Sony Music Special Products, A26639 PN 10142

Tracks 32-41: Alleluia Pascha nostrum - Anonymous - 7:33
Track 45 - Conductus "Ave virgo virginum" - Anonymous - 2:01

MY FAYRE LADYE: Tudor Songs and Chant (Images of Women in Medieval England), Nimbus Records Ltd.; Released June 1997; U.S. Distribution: Allegro
Running Time: 60:09

The Beloved
Quam pulcra es - Sarum Chant (pub 1502)
Quam pulcra es - John Dunstable (c. 1390-1453)
Ibo michi ad montem miree - Sarum Chant
Who shall have my fayre ladye? - Anon.
Salve regina misericordie - Sarum Chant

The Unfathomable
Adew mes amours - William Cornysh (d. 1523)
A robyn, gentyl robyn - William Cornysh
Iff I had wytt for to endyght - Anon.

The Maternal
Quid petis of ili? - Richard Pygott (b.c. 1485)

The Desired
Tota pulcra es - Sarum Chant
Up Y Aroseo - Anon.
Blow thi horne hunter - William Cornysh

The Triumphant
Anima mea liquefacta est - Sarum Chant
O regina mundi clara - John Browne (fl. 1490)
Beat Dei genitrix - Sarum Chant

PARIS 1200 (Perotin & Leonin - Chant and Polyphony from 12th Century France), Nimbus Records Ltd.; Released September 1998; U.S. Distribution: Allegro Running Time 73:54

Breves dies hominis
Virtutum thronus frangitur
Pange melos lacrimosum
Te sanctum dominum
Ave Maria fons letitie
Ave virgo virginum
Olim sudor Herculis
Condimentum nostre spei
Sic mea fata
Mundus vergens
Mens fidem/Encontre/In odorem
Gaude Maria virgo
Veris ad imperia
O curas hominum
Procurans odium
Diffusa est gratia
Veste nuptiali
Mors vite propitia

- Jason Serinus -


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