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The Divine Hand Ensemble: Making Classical Music Cool.

July 21, 2016

Divine Hand

Text by Jennifer Granato. Images by Branden Eastwood.

On a cold Tuesday night, a few of the members of The Divine Hand Ensemble sort through a box of gifts sent to them by fans. A giant blue peace sign pillow appears, some jewelry, a music box.

“A fan from England sent us all these matching necklaces,” Monique Canniere, one of the violinists of the ensemble, says while pointing to the sparkly silver necklaces she and all the other women in the group were wearing. “We’re going to take a picture of us wearing them and send it to her.”

She’s wearing a yellow beanie with the words ‘funky monkey’ stitched onto the brim.

“A fan sent me this too,” she continues, gesturing to the hat.

The Divine Hand Ensemble engages people because no one else is doing quite exactly what they do. They are a group of very talented, experienced musicians committed to shattering the stereotype that classical music is stuffy and unattainable by performing arrangements of rock, blues, jazz and reggae songs mixed in with opera arrangements and other classical standards.

“We play everything from Mozart to Motörhead,” Mano Divina, the group’s leader, says.

“But we don’t do Motörhead,” Canniere says, cutting him off.

“Okay, but we do Sabbath, Queen,” Divina corrects himself. They’re currently working on an arrangement of “Space Oddity,” a David Bowie song, to pay homage to the late singer.

Formed in 2010 by Divina, the group is made up of nine musicians: Jonathan Salmon, a cellist who writes their arrangements; percussion player Randy Rudolph; two harpists, Mary Bryson and Gloria Galante. In addition to Canniere, there are two other violists, Julie Myers and Brit Walmsley and one viola player, Hannah Richards. Divina, who leads the group, plays a theramin.

The Divine Hand Ensemble stands out not only for their generational span and diverse musical selections but also because of the undeniable allure of the theramin.

“It’s the only instrument in the world you can play without touching anything,” Divina says. “It’s singing electricity.”

Invented in Russia more than 85 years before modern wireless technology was developed, a theramin produces different pitched sounds depending on where the user places their hands inside the electrical field the instrument emits. In The Divine Hands Ensemble, the theramin takes the place of a voice.

To many people, the theramin is the most unique instrument in the group, but insiders know that’s not true. Bryson and Galante’s harps are also rare, but it’s not as obvious how.

“We have the world’s first carbon fiber harps,” Bryson says. After getting tired of dragging their heavy standard harps in and out of clubs through all kinds of weather, they found out about a man working on prototypes for ultra-light, carbon fiber harps.

“They’re the first two on the planet,” she continues. “They’re made in a Formula 1 race car factory in North Carolina.”

One of their missions is to bring classical styles of music to crowds who would never consider it in the first place. They’ve played for a convention of morticians, the cast of the David Lynch film “Eraserhead” and at  an annual show of funerary music at Laurel Hill Cemetery. They’re the musical ambassadors for The Tesla Science Foundation of Philadelphia and even were one of the few groups to have the honor to play for Pope Francis during the Papal Visit in September 2015. In addition to more random locations and audiences, they regularly book gigs at a variety of more traditional venues, such as The Trocadero, Underground Arts and PhilaMOCA.

As the director and curator of PhilaMOCA, Eric Bresler notes how the relationship between the two is a natural fit.

“Associations with death aside (DHE with their funerary pieces, PhilaMOCA being a former mausoleum showroom), the two entities share both a sense of humor and a gravitation toward the esoteric,” Bresler says via email. “They defy easy categorization, which is a rare trait in a music scene where bands are constantly compared and venues classified.”

The group prides itself on being able to adapt its music for any situation.

“One of the unique things about us is that people who know nothing about classical music love the show,” Divina says. “We can reach beyond a genre to move an audience. We’ve seen people crying, moved by the music …”

 Canniere cuts him off.

 “People have fallen and broken their teeth, then stayed for a show,” Canniere excitedly recounts, referring to a story of a drunk fan tripping and falling that Bressler also remembers well.

 “It was bleeding but he stayed for the rest of the show and came to the show the next day!” Myers explains.

 “That’s how good the DHE are,” Bresler says. “I can only hope that I pass at an early age so that The Divine Hand Ensemble can perform at my funeral.”

Five years, one funeral performance request and one bloody mouthed super-fan later, The Divine Hand Ensemble is doing what they set out to do, making classical music cool again, and with the momentum they’re riding, they’re not planning on stopping anytime soon.

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