From its opening responsorium (beautifully projected from the back of St. Clement’s Church by bass Jean Bernard Cerin) to the final "Magnificat," Choral Arts Philadelphia’s performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro Della Beata Vergin, 1610 (Vespers of 1610), started lively and remained exciting. Under the direction of Matthew Glandorf, its wild dissonances and rhythms highlighted those trademarks of Monteverdi’s music.
The Bach Collegium (regular players for Choral Arts Philadelphia's Bach @7 programs, minus their woodwinds), were joined by members of the Dark Horse Consort, who played instruments common to Monteverdi’s time: sackbut, cornetto, and recorders. The cornetti are surprisingly gentle, having thicker walls, finger holes, and a narrower bell than their modern descendant, the trumpet.
The cornetti occasionally blended in so deftly with the singers that you could watch and not hear them as a separate sound. At other times, musicians Kiri Tollaksen and Alex Opsahl chased each other in mirrored scale passages like nimble squirrels scrambling up a maple tree. At one point, the pair moved apart to create an echo effect and then walked back as they played (from memory, of course).
The sackbut, ancestor to the trombone, has a similar design, yet its thicker walls and narrower bells give it a far softer tone than the modern trombone. The Dark Horse sackbut players doubled on cornetti and recorder as well.
Boys will be girls
The tenor solo “Nigra sum,” from Solomon’s “Song of Songs,” was beautifully rendered by James Reese. (Monteverdi’s singers were male, so the female canticles were sung by tenors or castrati.) It is a sensual song with the lyrics: “I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem/Therefore the King hath loved me and brought me into his chamber.”
Reese and fellow tenors Nikolas Karageorgiou and Michael Jones stood far apart for “Duo Seraphim,” beginning each interweaving line in a smooth pianissimo without vibrato. After going through suspended dissonances and really squeezing them, the singers reached a crescendo before resolving the harmonies.
Sopranos Jessica Beebe and Rebecca Myers also sang without vibrato. Their duets had such closely matched intonation and volume their balance was near-perfect. The “Pulchra es,” accompanied by basso continuo alone, was even startling in its crystal simplicity.
Less clear was the blend of the full soprano section in the “Sonata sopra Sancta Maria,” which was clouded by vibrato and a lack of vocal unison. The accompanying instrumental sonata was so spritely and delicate, it sounded downright burdened by its too-heavy chorus.
The “Magnificat” more than made up for that shortcoming, with riveting transitions and modulations. The “Misericordia” particularly shone, deploying tenors and sopranos in a delightful vocal duel. A final amen was filled with flourishes and as the last chord died out, the moment lingered, sad and bereft.
An anonymous letter, written two years before Monteverdi died, predicted that his music would always be relevant: “Enjoy the music of the never-enough-praised Monteverdi, born to the world so as to rule over the emotions of others… this truly great man… known in far-flung parts and wherever music is known, will be sighed for in future ages at least as far as they can be consoled by his most noble compositions, which are set to last as long as they can resist the ravages of time.”
As predicted, Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 is still vibrant and moving, 407 years later.