Maren Montalbano and Piffaro, The Renaissance Band to Perform 5/16 at the Eastern State Penitentiary

Maren Montalbano and Piffaro, The Renaissance Band to Perform 5/16 at the Eastern State Penitentiary

As she awaited her untimely end in the Tower of London, King Henry VIII's second wife Anne Boleyn is said to have penned the poem, "O Death, rock me to sleep." On May 16th, the executed queen's words will haunt the cellblocks of Eastern State Penitentiary, brought back to life by Piffaro, The Renaissance Band and mezzo-soprano Maren Montalbano.

Piffaro artistic co-director Joan Kimball lives in the shadow of Eastern State's forbidding walls and has long imagined the sound of shawms (a Renaissance double reed wind instrument, ancestor to the modern oboe) echoing down the long, vaulted cell blocks, so acoustically reminiscent of the Romanesque cathedrals of old Europe. This season's focus on the music of Renaissance England provided an opportunity to create a program eminently suitable to both the physical space and the history and mission of the institution. Eastern State Penitentiary Director of Public Programming Sean Kelley is "very proud to host Piffaro at Eastern State Penitentiary. Their music will be haunting in the resonate spaces inside this prison, but will also offer a unique insight into the universality of themes of murder, crime, justice and prisons - the experience of the men and women who once inhabited Eastern State Penitentiary."

Broadside ballads flourished in 17th century England. Printed fast and cheap and set to familiar tunes, they were the New York Post of an era before newspapers. They recounted criminal deeds in salacious and inventive detail, repeated court transcripts verbatim, and occasionally (though rarely) railed against the brutal penal code of the day. A boatswain driven to thievery to keep his love in riches ("Jack Williams"), murderous wives and their illicit lovers ("The Complaint of Ulalia"), low-life pickpockets ("Packington's Pound") - all achieved notoriety thanks to industrious balladeers.

Court and chapel composers were also attracted to the human dramas that played out in the Tower of London, though unsurprisingly they tended to focus less on titillating details of shocking crimes and more on themes of contrition and repentance. One can hear the quest for grace in poignant works by John Dowland ("An Heart That's Broken and Contrite"), Robert Johnson ("Defiled is my name"), and Thomas Weelkes ("Cease Sorrows Now").

Eastern State Penitentiary sponsors two performances on Friday, May 16: at 7:30PM and a special late-night concert at 10:00PM. For those who prefer a more traditional concert experience, the program will be repeated on Saturday, May 17 at the acoustically superb Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill and on Sunday, May 18th at Christ Church Christiana Hundred, nestled next to the Hagley Museum just outside of Wilmington, DE.

Tickets range from $15 to $40 and are available at or 215-235-8469.

Prisoners & Penitents

Featuring special guest soprano Maren Montalbano

  • Friday, May 16 / 7:30PM / Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia - ADDED: SPECIAL LATE NIGHT SHOW AT 10PM!
  • Saturday, May 17 / 8PM / Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia
  • Sunday, May 18 / 3PM / Christ Church Christiana Hundred, Wilmington, DE

About Maren Montalbano: A graduate of New England Conservatory of Music, Maren Montalbano sang in the historic world premiere of John Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning work, On the Transmigration of Souls, which was later released into a Grammy Award-winning CD. She recorded Douglas Cuomo's opera Arjuna's Dilemma, which was released in 2008 to critical acclaim. Other commercial recordings include Alice Parker's Listen Lord and The Family Reunion, Kile Smith's Vespers, as well as The Crossing's It is time, Christmas Daybreak, and I Want to Live. She opened the 2012-13 season as Dame Quickly in Verdi's Falstaff (Philadelphia Fringe Festival) and was a featured soloist in a world premiere of Bonhoeffer by Thomas Lloyd (The Crossing). Her solo in Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle (Choral Arts Philadelphia) was praised as "wonderful" by the Philadelphia Inquirer. In the 2013-14 season, she has been featured with Network for New Music, and she is excited to embark on a two-year solo recording project highlighting new works for mezzo. Ms. Montalbano lives in New Jersey and sings professionally throughout a wide geographic area with such groups as New York Choral Artists, Opera Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Singers, and The Crossing. She currently studies voice with Julianne Baird.