Musica de Camera season opener a bow to Wagner’s muse

One of the region’s oldest musical ensemble companies is nearly 48 years old. However, 48 years is a mere blip in time, considering the age of their music.

New Orleans Musica da Camera was founded in 1966, but the music it performs can date back as far as the 11th and 12th centuries.

Translated as “music of the chamber,” Musica da Camera specializes in medieval and early Renaissance music, as played on reproductions of the instruments from those time periods.

The group’s musical arsenal includes such exotic instruments as lutes, recorders, harps, harpsichords, hand-cranked hurdy gurdies and early forerunners of today’s brass and percussion devices. Many of those instruments have been meticulously reproduced and handcrafted by Musica da Camera’s founder and co-director, Milton G. Scheuermann Jr.

Musica da Camera opens its 2013-14 season with a series of three concerts titled “Minnesingers and Meistersingers,” inspirations for the 19th-century works of German composer Richard Wagner, who was born 200 years ago.

Together with his longtime co-director, Thais St. Julien, Scheuermann has accumulated such an extensive archive of medieval/early Renaissance recordings, sheet music, instruments and other related items that they purchased a Garden District house in which to store it.

The collection includes more than 9,000 books and scores, thousands of CDs and more than 100 instruments, including seven harpsichords. The facility also houses rehearsal space for the group.

So how did it all begin for Scheuermann? As he explains, “I had a small ensemble playing early music, primarily baroque. And then my interest gradually went back and back and back.”

His curiosity and research took him back in time to the Middle Ages, unearthing some of the earliest forms of Western music including ninth- and 10th-century Gregorian chants.

Painstakingly handwritten scores with square notes on the staff lines of well-preserved illuminated manuscripts provided Scheuermann with a treasure trove of early musical pieces for his ensemble to perform.

But, most amazingly, Scheuermann also noticed that many of the musical instruments of that time bore close resemblance to those still in use today.

A visit to the 12th-century Portico da Gloria of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in northwestern Spain gave Scheuermann some of the blueprints he needed for his instrumental creations.

“There are 24 figures playing instruments on display in the portico and whoever did it obviously had fantastic instruments to copy from,” Scheuermann said. “They are extremely accurate and you can see they’re plucking perfect fourths and perfect fifths on the harp and the other instruments.”

St. Julien, a vocal soprano who plays harp and early percussion instruments, joined forces with Scheuermann in 1974. Along with Bryce Reveley on harp, Stuart Le Blanc on lute and related string instruments, and Scheuermann on recorders, she completes the core ensemble of Musica da Camera.

Concerts also feature the voices of Vox Feminae, a women’s vocal ensemble St. Julien founded in 1994.

St. Julien is proud to point out that her singers get paid; it’s one of only two professional choruses in New Orleans.

“No one is going to get rich off of what we pay, but we do pay a reasonable amount,” St. Julien said. “I think it’s just wonderful that my singers will say, ‘We would do this without pay because we love it so much.’ And that’s one of the things that I think distinguishes the ensemble, apart from the early music we perform. The people who are performing are really enjoying it, and when it comes to the singers, they’re just ready for anything.”

Milton Scheuermann Jr. and Thais St. Julien can be heard hosting their “Continuum” show on WWNO-FM, 89.9, from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. every Sunday, a slot they have held down since 1976.

“Angels & Opera: Minnesingers & Meistersingers, Wagner’s Inspiration”

WHEN/WHERE:

3 p.m. Sunday, St. Joseph Abbey Church, St. Benedict.

4 p.m. Oct. 6, Ursuline Chapel, 2701 State St., New Orleans.

3 p.m. Oct. 13, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1031 S. Carrollton Ave., New Orleans.

ADMISSION: Free

INFO: www.nomdc.org or email mdc@nomdc.org