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Monteverdi Vespers by Choral Arts and Piffaro (3rd review)BY: Steve Cohen 12.14.2010
To appreciate Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, it helps to understand the age and the place in which it was composed. In effect this operatic pioneer was following in Michelangelo’s artistic footsteps.
Monteverdi, Vespers of 1610. Choral Arts Philadelphia, chorus; Matthew Glandorf, music director. Piffaro Renaissance Wind Band; Joan Kimball and Robert Weimken, co-directors. December 5, 2010 at First Baptist Church, 17th and Sansom Sts. Choral Arts: www.choralarts.com. Piffaro: (215) 235-8469 or www.piffaro.org.
Monteverdi’s magnificent job applicationSTEVE COHEN
At the 400th anniversary performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s astonishing Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, I was struck by the range of audience members— from cognoscenti like BSR’s Robert Zaller and Tom Purdom to those who curiously asked what those funny-looking instruments were.
Regardless of your level of expertise, this concert gave abundant pleasure. Visual impact was provided by the early-period instruments, like the sackbut, viol de gamba, cornett and theorbo. The sounds may have been strange to the ears of some in the audience, but the response was enthusiastic.
The range of Monteverdi’s piece extends from quiet love songs to fancifully ornamented instrumental and vocal solos to complex choruses.
Matthew Glandorf conducted his Choral Arts Philadelphia, supplemented by experienced solo singers from other locales, and also the Renaissance wind band known as Piffaro, which was abetted by additional imported expert instrumentalists. Eighteen players were in the pit, while the chorus numbered 42. Monteverdi’s music brims with inventiveness that almost overflows when he sets the sensuality of The Song of Solomon as a tribute to the Virgin Mary.
A new musical industry
Prominent in the center rear of the orchestra were two theorbos: plucked string instruments, similar to lutes but with much longer necks. One was eight feet long and the other even longer. They provided a solid underpinning for choral music and, at other times, solo accompaniment during love songs.
In contrast, members of the chorus appeared conventional. But their technique wasn’t. This 17th-Century music is based on Gregorian plainchant and requires different tone production and technique than what you want in opera, even in relatively early operas like Mozart’s. The singers must control their vibrato and keep it to a bare minimum.
Their approach, ideally, is closer to speech, without the forced continual vibrato of a typical opera singer. So the vocal artists of this Vespers used an approach that valued articulation, with attention to releases and spaces between notes, rather than sustained legato. No belting, no pushing.
No women’s roles
In Monteverdi’s time there were no mixed choirs— that is, no women. So Monteverdi’s Vespers provides little differentiation into today’s so-called tenor, baritone or soprano parts. This explanation answers the puzzlement of some attendees when they saw female soloists sing King Solomon’s words: “You are beautiful, my love, a charming and graceful daughter of Jerusalem.”
Beyond this, it’s astonishing to hear Solomon’s words about taking a beautiful black woman to his bed used for a church service in praise of the Virgin Mother. We must transport ourselves back to a time when the Catholic Church considered itself God’s bride, with Jesus as the groom, and sensual love was analogous to God’s love for his people.
I (and no doubt other non-Christians) was momentarily put off to hear foreign endings to a group of psalms (110, 113, 122, 127 and 147)— all of them Hebrew poems extolling Jerusalem as the Jewish religion’s holy city. Each of these ended with: “Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto”: “Glory to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever.” In fact, Catholic practice has always appropriated the psalms of David for Christian use. When Monteverdi composed his Vespers in 1610 the Crusades were long past, but the faithful still felt a passionate attachment to Jerusalem.
Monteverdi wrote these Vespers just 46 years after the death of Michelangelo, whose monumental mural on the Sistine Chapel ceiling was virtually fresh. The popes in Vatican City were encouraging extravagant expressions of art, and in Venice, more than in any other city, paintings and compositions took on a worldly, almost secular aspect. That’s probably why Monteverdi chose to leave Mantua— where he was a court singer, string player and composer— to apply for the position as composer-in-residence in Venice.
The Vespers of 1610 was his job application— a portfolio displaying the variety of his compositional skills. His last previous work was the opera Orfeo, written for Mantua’s annual Carnival. Monteverdi took one of the melodies from that opera and included it in the Vespers. He also included a Sancta Maria and a Magnificat, but these traditionally Christian prayers were far outnumbered by corporeal non-Christian forms.
Conductor Glandorf, and others, maintain that the Vespers we heard at this concert may never have been performed in its entirety in Venice’s Cathedral of San Marco. It was exciting, however, to hear it all at the First Baptist Church on the anniversary of its composition.♦
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