L’Esprit Baroque: Origins


Playing in an early music ensemble has been for me the fulfillment of a lifelong dream that grew and took shape over a period of many years. Looking back, I can identify many influences that served to shape me into the person that I have become, not the least of these being my supportive and generous parents, Art and Bettie Von Fange: my mom for her wealth of ideas and encouragement, and my dad for open-handedly funding my adventures into the world of music. I owe everything to them.

Growing up in the German Lutheran Church in the Midwest, I had an early exposure to the pipe organ, which is integral to the Lutheran style of worship. Sitting in the pew near the organist each week, I would watch his every move while my parents sang in the choir. From an early age, I knew that I wanted to be an organist. I began playing the piano at age 6 with a teacher who encouraged me to play everything. My mother made sure that there was lots of music around, so I grew up sight-reading music in much the same way that one learns to read words in books. One day my teacher invited an oboe player to come to her home when I was having a lesson, and I was thrilled to be able to accompany her. This is my earliest memory of playing with another instrumentalist, and I was hooked! At 13 I started studying the organ, and it wasn’t long before I had my first church organ playing job. Accompanying became an important part of my experience, whether it was accompanying congregational singing in church, church choirs, or high school choral groups.

My first real encounter with “early music” happened in the mid-1970’s when I was an organ major at Valparaiso University in Northern Indiana. I had the good fortune to take a music history course taught by Dr. Newman Powell, a brilliant musicologist who trained at Stanford University, and who had a gift for breathing life into music that might otherwise have languished in the library stacks. The class was comprised entirely of music majors, so he was happy to hand out parts to singers and instrumentalists alike, organizing the students into small vocal and instrumental ensembles, teaching us how to conduct with a “tactus” and how to read early notation. Piano majors got to play recorders of all sizes, and we learned how to tune a harpsichord by listening for and counting “beats” (the fluctuation that sounds when two strings are not vibrating at the same frequency.) That was a revelation to me when I finally got the hang of it! Obviously, this was a very hands-on type of class. It also was my first exposure to Gregorian Chant, which I found endlessly fascinating and mysterious. Dr. Powell organized a “field trip” for the class to a large church in downtown Chicago, where we attended a concert by the New York Pro Musica. I remember sitting in the front row from which I heard for the very first time a countertenor; I didn’t know that men could even sing that high! That evening, I also heard the exotic sounds of crumhorns, recorders, sackbuts, a large range of viols, and drums. It was fabulous, and again, I was “hooked”! From that time, I started collecting recordings by early music ensembles.
After graduating with a performance degree in organ, I studied my instrument in France for two years (a long story for another time perhaps). During that period my understanding of performance practice underwent fundamental changes. The tracker (mechanical action) organs in Europe require a different approach in terms of technique, so I changed. I studied ornamentation as used in French classical music, and the correlation between voice and instruments in both treatise and practice. Our organ class at the Conservatoire de Toulouse collaborated in presenting concerts on organs in the region. There was also a memorable weekend workshop in which a farmhouse was converted into a conference center housing several harpsichords in different rooms for us to play, and a demonstration by a baroque flute player; I will never forget his warm and wonderful interpretation of “Le Rossignol en Amour” (The Nightingale in Love) by Couperin, which he played a cappella. I found the baroque flute to be completely enchanting, and ever after was on the lookout for a baroque flute player with whom to collaborate. My experience abroad included a steady diet of concerts of all kinds. This was the mid-1970’s when early music performance was on the rise in Europe with such well-known names as harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, and the Kuijken brothers.

On my return from France, I earned the master’s degree in organ performance at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and acquired a harpsichord along the way. My journey took me next to Norman, Oklahoma, where I played the organ and accompanied multiple choirs at a large neo-gothic United Methodist church. Shortly after my arrival, I met my husband-to-be, a life-changing event. That fall, he invited me to attend a Madrigal Dinner presented by the music department of the University of Oklahoma, where he was a professor of mathematics. We were delighted with the Renaissance program sung by an early music vocal ensemble with support from a band of early instruments. During my time in Norman, I also found kindred musical spirits and played a few small ensemble concerts with a flutist and a soprano, a couple of which took place in my home. In addition, I had the opportunity to play continuo for a performance of the Vivaldi “Gloria” at a nearby Episcopal church.

Fast forward thirty years. My husband’s career had landed us in Los Angeles not long after our marriage. We had five children, home schooled them all, saw them all through college, one through medical school, one through a 5-year PhD program (in mathematics, of course), and the youngest is currently halfway through his PhD program (also mathematics – it’s in their genes, I guess). Three of them are singers (2 sopranos, 1 bass), and I now have the joy of collaborating with my own young adult children making music! My beautiful and supportive mom passed away in June 2011, leaving me a go-buy-yourself-an-organ fund, which I did, another dream fulfilled. It is a lovely small tracker organ by Gene Bedient Co. (Nebraska). After its installation in 2012, the family determined that we wanted to organize our “first ever” home Christmas concert featuring the organ, singers, and instruments. I had acquired several musical friends during my tenure at a couple of area churches over the years, who are very proficient players, so our little band consisted of violin, recorders, cornetto, viola da gamba, and the organ, of course. As it has turned out, that “historic” concert was the first of many home concerts that have drawn a variety of people from our community into the world of early music in an intimate setting. Most have never experienced anything like it before, and all come away energized, with a new appreciation of live music and a realization that they have discovered a new tribe of friends.

In 2013, a friend recommended that we go hear a solo recital given by John Ott, a local viola da gamba player, so we went. It turned out to be a fortuitous evening. After the concert I asked if anyone, including the small audience of his friends, students, and fellow string players, would be interested in playing music with me. John was the only person who said, “I would!” That is how John Ott and I started playing together. Randomly along the way I learned that I shared a birthday with C.P.E. Bach, and that March 8, 2014 marked the 300th anniversary of his birth. It seemed eminently appropriate to take some of his music on an outing on that day, so we put together a program and played it in a home concert; I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my birthday! It wasn’t long before John introduced me to his friend and colleague Sarah Vay Kerns, who had recently been given a copy of a renaissance flute made in Germany in the 1960’s. We started playing together with her as well. After a time, she took her flute in for repairs and was given a baroque flute (1795 Potter flute) as a “loaner”. It’s a remarkable story how that flute eventually became hers. When it did, one of my first requests was, “Le Rossignol en Amour” by Couperin. At last.

In the recent past, John took time out to earn a master’s degree in historical performance on the viola da gamba at the Longy School in Boston, Mass. After two years, he returned to Southern California with his degree, and a girlfriend in tow, the lovely and brilliant violinist Sylvia Schwartz, whom he met at Longy. It has been such a joy to collaborate with these wonderful young musicians. Our daughter Elysha has been with me on this from the start, ready to sing anything, anywhere, any time. It is amazing to see our ensemble work together both as friends and colleagues, and most of all, to be a part of it. We have put together and presented many exciting concerts to date, encompassing a wide range of vocal and instrumental music, and organized around a variety of themes. Many of our concerts have showcased the talents of family members and friends as well.

We are focused on getting the music out there, out into Orange County and beyond. Last summer we performed for the first time as a fringe concert to the Berkeley Early Music Festival. Next summer we look to play a fringe concert as part of the Boston Early Music Festival.

Recognition is due to Paul, my husband (and also an avid violinist and violist), for coming up with our name, L’Esprit Baroque (Spirit of the Baroque), which captures perfectly what we are all about.

At this point and with a grateful heart, all I can add is, “Vive la musique!”

—Janice Massatt