WITF Music: Sempre Dolce

The ensemble talks classical music, MacGyver and jams vs. jellies.

  • Joe Ulrich

“Sempre Dolce” translates to “always sweet,” so it’s appropriate that our interview started off on the topic of jams. Before starting an interview, I often ask musicians what they had for breakfast to get them talking into their microphone so I can get a level set.

“I had a plain bagel with peach jelly,” says violinist Greg Glessner. “Actually, it was peach jam.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Jams are made with the whole fruit. Jellies are made only with the juice.”

“Jams are better.”

“Jams are way better.”

Sempre Dolce performing in the WITF studio

Joe Ulrich / WITF

Sempre Dolce performing in the WITF studio

But regional string ensemble Sempre Dolce doesn’t just know jams, they know how to jam.

Violists Mary Firestone and Marie Valigorsky are founding members of the group. They perform with violinists Greg Glessner and Sjrsten Siegfried, and cellist Matt Masek.

Sempre Dolce’s repertoire includes classical works like you might expect, but they also perform other types of music that appeal to them—that includes covers of popular songs like Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and Led Zepplin’s “Kashmir.” They also have a penchant for 1980’s TV themes.

“We’ve done ‘MacGyver’ as well,” Mary says. “The ‘MacGyver’ fan page on Facebook found it and made it viral for about a week. It was wonderful.”

Violist Marie Valigorsky

Joe Ulrich / WITF, Inc.

Violist Marie Valigorsky

Greg adds: “We do what we want to do. And it just happens to be a pretty odd mix of things sometimes.”

In our studio they kept it fairly classical with two original works and an arrangement on an older piece. First they performed a work by Marie titled “Mountains.”

“It’s based on driving through forest roads and state parks,” Marie says. She cites some minimalist composers as her influences: Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich.

In keeping with the outdoors theme, they performed Greg’s arrangement of a work by Josquin des Prez titled “El Grillo.”

“With Renaissance music, it’s very versatile actually,” Greg says. “Back then they would compose and play pieces on instruments as well as sing them. So the original lyrics were about a cricket who sings loud and long and, unlike the other birds, stays in one place. And when the heat gets fierce he only sings for love.”

“So I felt like our combination of instruments could really do justice to it because all the parts, even though they’re independent, they all come together in a very chordal structure … so all I had to do was transcribe the notes that he wrote for our instruments and then I had to adapt the expressions and articulations for string instruments.”

“Unrequited” was the third work they performed, a piece composed by Mary and based on a poem she wrote. She had previously done mostly arrangements but wanted to push herself to write.

Joe Ulrich / WITF

Violinist Mary Firestone.

“At that point in my life my overall experience and my takeaway on relationships and love was that they simply don’t work,” says Mary.

“[The piece] starts off, you’re unhappy, you been through this before, you meet someone, it seems great, you’re flirtatious, ‘Oh this is wonderful, I’m forgetting all those hardships,’ and then you come to this beautiful love song in the middle and then it begins its tumble.”

Working in a small group on one’s own compositions can also allow a piece to continue to grow and maybe never be quite finished.

“I shared [‘Unrequited’] with some people when I was working it,” says Mary. “And they were coming at it [as non-musicians] and saying ‘This part doesn’t seem long enough,’ ‘This doesn’t seem developed enough.'”

So she continued to develop the piece. And while the ensemble rehearsed the piece a year ago, rehearsing it again for this performance was different. “I felt like it was growing. I felt like I was getting to know it in a better, different way. So that was really wonderful.”

As a chamber ensemble, there’s no conductor to lead the group or make decisions. Matt says this can be one of the challenges of performing in this kind of situation.

Three members of Sempre Dolce performing

“We’re our own bosses,” Matt says. “Getting a consensus, keeping the ship on course. You don’t have a conductor waving a wand in your face.”

Mary adds, “I’ve always enjoyed chamber music more for that reason because we have to be attuned to one another, listen to each other, just our peripheral and our ears are enough, we don’t even have to look at each other directly. I think it just feels tighter and closer, more intimate.”

Sempre Dolce’s next performance is at Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center on April 25.

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