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Young musicians keep baroque music alive with Kontrapunktus

Kontrapunktus performs baroque music at St. Andrew's Catholic Church.
Chamber orchestra Kontrapunktus performs a repertoire of baroque music at rehearsal at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Pasadena on Jan. 3, 2023.
(Sarah Mosqueda)
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Baroque music may not strike the average casual music fan but the 17th- and early 18th-century style of music has certainly struck a chord with a group of young musicians known as Kontrapunktus.

“Kontrapunktus, which means counterpoint in English, is a baroque chamber orchestra. It is rare in that it is a chamber orchestra comprised of young musicians — student musicians for the most part,” said R. Douglas Jacobs, founder and executive director of the orchestra.

However, Jacobs notes its members prefer not to be considered student musicians since most have performed professionally for years while attending some of the country’s most prestigious music conservatories, like Colburn, Juilliard and Yale.

“They are essentially professional musicians that are going to school,” he said.

The nine-piece classical ensemble has been keeping baroque music alive since the group formed in 2015. Its current lineup has been playing since last May, and the orchestra returns to Orange County on Jan. 8 and Jan. 14 to perform “Bach & Handel: Soli Deo gloria.”

Concertmaster Hannah White, violinist Cameron Alan-Lee and second principal violinist David Chang.
Chamber orchestra Kontrapunktus from left, features concertmaster Hannah White, violinist Cameron Alan-Lee and second principal violinist David Chang.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

“We play an eclectic repertoire of music, so we don’t play the standards that you are accustomed to experiencing,” said Jacobs. “We venture away from that and play something that is going to be unique, gripping, emotional.”

“Soli Deo gloria” is a series of early 18th-century musical compositions written “in praise of God alone” by the baroque era’s two master composers, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.

“I call baroque music prehistoric jazz. In fact, a lot of the classic jazz players were heavily influenced by Bach, so his music transcended music as we know now,” Jacobs said. “We capture the spirit of that music in the way we present it on stage live.”

A love of baroque music is what initially united the nine musicians, and friendships have been fostered from that love.

“This music we feel is very important to us and it speaks to us, very deeply,” said cellist Osheen Manukyan.

“After COVID, I think any opportunity we can get to play with each other and for anybody is something that we really treasure,” said violinist Cameron Alan-Lee.

Hary Dearman, left, and Osheen Manukyan, members of Kontrapunktus.
Hary Dearman, left, and Osheen Manukyan, members of the chamber orchestra Kontrapunktus.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

The group is also proud to continue an old tradition while bringing it new life.

“I think us being so young, we add a certain energy to baroque music that is not normally there,” said Cassie Drake, who plays the viola, “and that makes it really exciting for the audience to be able to hear that kind of music in a different way.”

This season’s performances will take place at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Orange on Jan. 8 and Laguna Presbyterian Church in Laguna Beach on Jan. 14.

The group rehearses at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Pasadena, though the musicians come from all over. Second principal violinist, David Chang, for example, is originally from north Tustin.

“I am from the O.C., so performing in my hometown is kind of nice,” said Chang.

Kontrapunktus has found followers in Orange County, particularly in the south county cities of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and San Juan Capistrano, where previous performances have taken place.

The group plays on vintage instruments, giving the sound a historical accuracy that only amplifies their talent.

“All their instruments are on loan from various patrons, and they are all antiques,” said Jacobs.

“Being able to play on them is a blessing,” said Chang.

The harpsichord, for example, is a double-manual Italian replica of a harpsichord made in 1743 and is tailored for Kontrapunktus’ performance.

Bogang Hwang plays the harpsichord at rehearsal at St. Andrew's Catholic Church.
Bogang Hwang, a member of the Kontrapunktus orchestra, plays the harpsichord, a musical instrument popular in European music from the 16th until the 18th century, at rehearsal at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Pasadena on Jan. 3, 2023.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

A precursor to the piano, the harpsichord is a keyboard musical instrument, which has strings that create sound vibrations by plucking, rather than hammering like a piano. The harpsichord used by Kontrapunktus is on loan to the orchestra for the season and is played by Bogang Hwang and was built by Curtis Berak, a well-reputed Southern California harpsichord builder.

This season, members of the orchestra are most looking forward to sharing their love of baroque music and also, in a way, preserving it.

“As a group, we are doing our part to keep this music alive,” Manukyan said. “This is music from centuries ago, and it is still very relevant today, and it is still speaks to people.”

Alan-Lee agrees. “When I am playing and I see some one in the crowd looking up and really enjoying it, that to me is rewarding,” he said.

Details about the orchestra and its shows can be found at kontrapunktus.com/

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