Monteverdi Vespers by Choral Arts and Piffaro (1st review)

What did Monteverdi want?

Opsahl: A winning instrument.
Opsahl: A winning instrument.

The Monteverdi Vespers presented by Choral Arts Philadelphia and Piffaro seems to have been a true collaboration between a choral group and an instrumental group united by an intense interest in the issues raised by early music performance. The two organizations received equal billing on the program cover, and the directors of both organizations contributed program notes.

The program didn't even list a conductor. Choral Arts director Matthew Glandorf conducted all the choral sections and Piffaro's co-directors, Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken, played to his beat when their Renaissance instruments accompanied the chorus. But Glandorf stepped aside during most of the instrumental interludes and let Piffaro and their guest performers play their winds and strings without a conductor, as they usually do.

As Wiemken noted in his program notes, there is no right way to perform the Vespers. Monteverdi's score consists of a set of part books and the composer's list of recommended instruments. But we don't know which instruments played particular passages. The musicians can only construct a performance that could have taken place in the composer's own time, given the instruments actually in use and the information about performance practices musicologists have gleaned from instruction manuals, descriptions, pictures and other historical sources.

Encyclopedic knowledge

Interesting as all that is, it wouldn't mean a thing if it didn't result in a performance that offered the audience all the sensual and emotional pleasures we think of when we hear Monteverdi's name. Glandorf, Weimken and Kimball created an event that reflected a common dedication to full-blooded performances guided by an encyclopedic knowledge of the historical record.

It helps, of course, if you can start with the kind of vocal score Monteverdi created. Monteverdi packed his Vespers with surprises and creative touches written in the same expressive, scene-painting style he pioneered in his operas.

His setting for Psalm 147— Unless the Lord were to build a house— starts with a thrumming chorus and switches to a rippling, driving passage that sounds like something peasants might sing as they stride across the fields at harvest time. His Lauda, Jerusalem (Praise the Lord, Jerusalem) is a rolling dance; and the Audi, coelum (Hear, O Heaven) surprises the congregation with offstage echoes to the tenor solo.

Wooden trumpets

Piffaro embellished the first part of Psalm 147 with sackbuts (trombones) and the special sound of the cornetto— a wooden trumpet, with finger holes like a recorder, that adds a sweet, unbrassy brightness to the musical tapestry. The Lauda, Jerusalem provided a perfect opportunity for an accompaniment that captured the verve of the high-spirited Renaissance dance music that Piffaro includes in most of its own concerts.

You wouldn't think Holy Mary, pray for us sounds particularly lively, but it was framed by a cheery instrumental interlude that included rustic violin duets and riffs for the cornettos. The vocal part that contrasted with these instrumental allurements was the single Latin phrase Sancta Mari, ora pro nobis, sung by the soprano section of the chorus.

Solo standouts

Choral Arts' three tenor soloists deserve special mention. Phillip Anderson, Aaron Sheehan and Steven Bradshaw brought rich, expressive voices to their work and enhanced important sectors of the score.

Among the instrumentalists, the most notable contributions came from violinists David Douglass and Rebecca Harris and cornetists Matt Jennejohn and Alexandra Opsahl. The cornetists enjoyed the advantage, of course, of playing one of the most winning instruments that humans have invented.♦

To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
To read a response, click here.

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