When a nun looked at Jordan Sramek and told him — in no uncertain terms — he was missing his calling in life, he couldn't help but listen.
Today, Sramek is the founder and artistic director for early music group the Rose Ensemble, which will perform a Christmas program Sunday at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts.
A few decades ago, however, Sramek was a misguided piano performance major.
"In the nicest, most nun-ly way, possible she said to me, 'Jordan Sramek, you were born to sing Gregorian chant,' which was funny because I was kind of a raunchy singer," he said. "It took a lot of time for me to be a singer. Sister Monica must have seen something I didn't."
What: ‘And Glory Shone Around,’ early American Christmas music
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16
Where: Daniels Pavilion, Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples
Cost: $15 students and $45 adults
Information/Tickets: 239-597-1900 or http://thephil.org
Naples may owe Sister Monica a thank-you note.
The Rose Ensemble's upcoming program, "And Glory Shone Around" is likely to be one of the most interesting and musically complex Christmas-themed shows to come to Naples. Described by the ensemble as "a tapestry of early American spiritual songs, ballads and dances," the program weaves together a half-dozen American musical traditions into one living, breathing and singing compendium highlighting our country's colorful musical past.
If not for Sister Monica, it's possible the program — and the Rose Ensemble — wouldn't exist.
Technically, the group Sramek founded more than 15 years ago is classified as an early music ensemble. In the classical music world, early music usually refers to music that was written before or during Bach's lifetime — music that predates most of what will be performed next week at the Phil.
Sramek, however, chooses to define early music more broadly. In his opinion, music is linear — a constantly evolving tradition that grows and changes much like a language. Instead of confining early music to that written before a somewhat arbitrary date, Sramek sees early music as the seed that germinated into later musical traditions. In essence, it's about going to the source, even if that source happened decades after early music's traditional cutoff date.
"A lot of people use the cutoff date of 1750 for early music, and that's just a ridiculous idea. They say, 'OK, Bach is dead, baroque music is dead, let's move on to Mozart,' but the lines blur," he said.
So Sramek put together the group's Christmas program as a way of showing that even shiny and new America has early music. From boot-stomping Kentucky wassail songs to ethereal Shaker hymns, on Sunday, Daniels Pavilion will ring with the sounds of America's first hummable melodies.
"It's this great way to explore our own heritage as Americans," ensemble member Ginna Watson said. "You listen to these songs, and you think about these immigrants coming here and making their own music."
For Watson, a classically trained violinist, the connection to past immigrants is especially strong. The granddaughter of Swedish immigrants, Watson has archived memories of her grandfather and uncles playing folk songs together. Her grandfather played the fiddle while her uncles strummed along on mandolins and squeezed tunes out of accordions.
As a young girl, when she picked up the violin, she gravitated toward the tunes her grandfather had played. Her mother, however, was adamant that she would be classically trained. Decades later, she's back.
"I had to learn to play fiddle for this program, and it's been like getting back to my roots; it's been really fun," she said.
But beyond being an audible anthology of early American music, "And Glory Shone Around" also is the perfect Christmas program for people who hate Christmas programs. A few of the tunes you will undoubtedly recognize, such as John Jacob Niles' "I Wonder as I Wander." Most, however, will be different — yet will still have the warm cadence of the joyful, Yuletime songs some people crave this time of year. There will be no sleepy-jazz renditions of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and no beaten-to-a-pulp "Little Drummer Boy."
"Sometimes I want to hear something different, but I still want it to be Christmas-y,I think that's the genius of this program," Watson said.
And you can immerse yourself in the music as much or as little as you like — the ensemble doesn't care, as long as you like it.
"We're just as happy to have the guy in the audience who closes his eyes and listens and says, 'I don't care what it's about, it's beautiful,' as we are to have the guy who reads every note in the program notes," Sramek said.
"It's not about pelting the audience with obscurity, it's about presenting things that are indeed obscure but in a way that is natural and organic."
Which means Sunday, the critically acclaimed nine-person ensemble will be jamming along to a gut-stringed gourd banjo, whooping its way through traditional Acadian dances, and harmonizing on the honest melodies of Mount Lebanon's early Shaker population.
And while the music is undoubtedly different from anything else you'll hear this holiday season, the messages remain surprisingly similar: peace on Earth, goodwill to all and celebrating the joy of ringing in the darkest days of the year surrounded by light, loved ones and plenty of good music.