in: Reviews

January 8, 2013

Voices Raised in Praise

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Warming up in First Church (Cashman Kerr Prince photo)

Warming up in First Church (Cashman Kerr Prince photo)

Green Mountain Project brought Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers to St. Paul’s Church, Cambridge last Saturday night in a beautifully realized performance which excited the large audience, brightening and cheering an otherwise bleak and cold night.

Performed without intermission, Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine marks a trajectory from a versicle and response for solo voice through a sixfold cyclical structure to the culminating Magnificat. As light wanes and darkness deepens, a voice cries out for divine succor; comforted and reassured by the end, all voices rise in praise. It is difficult for us, products of an industrialized—and increasingly digital—age, separated from the natural rhythms of day and night, seasons of the year, to realize just how awe-inspiring and traumatizing night was for earlier generations. Who thinks about night? By chance some four years ago I read A. Roger Ekirch’s magisterial At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, which charts nocturnal culture in the pre-Industrial Revolution world of Europe (and, to a lesser extent North America). In a world understood through magico-religious or superstitious lenses, there is much to fear in the dark world of night. There is also a now-lost culture of middle-night travel and visits; all was not gloom and doom, footpads and robbers. I mention all this as a sort of background to Monteverdi’s—or any composer’s—Vespers:  facing another night, the musical setting of the Christian service is both a thanksgiving for another day completed and a plea for seeing another dawn rise. We romanticize life in an early seventeenth-century Venetian church if we imagine a world otherwise—both inside the church (who knew what lurked, or transpired, in the dark corners) and outside the church (before and after the music). Sublime beauty in the face of heart-palpitating fear:  Monteverdi composed the one to counteract the other.

Scott Metcalfe, music director (aided and abetted by Jolle Greenleaf, artistic director) perfectly captured these inherent tensions in this performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. A small instrumental ensemble and the singers were amassed in the chancel; smaller groups of singers intoned the  Antiphons for the First Vespers on the Feast of Purification (February 2, and the liturgical end of the Christmas season) from the chancel, or the transepts, or the back of the nave during the course of the performance. The performers made full and well-considered use of the space and its acoustics. The performance opened with the versicle Deus in adjutorium (“God to my aid”) Jason McStoots intoning from the chancel; surely he missed his calling as a Carmelite monk. The response, Domine in adiuvandum (“God to my salvation”), and the first Antiphon, O admirable commercium (“O wondrous exchange”), presented a good blend of voices and a wonderful balance between voices and instruments:  we there amassed were in the presence of a magisterial performance. The full use of the space heightened the inherent drama of this music. Throughout the evening, Scott Metcalfe, wielding a bow in lieu of a baton, leading from the violin or with empty hands, gave clear directions and inspired the musicians to match musical character to text in a thoughtful and profoundly moving concert. In Nisi Dominus (“Except God”) we heard the contrast between the admonitory and instructive opening text and the concluding Beatus vir (“Blessed is the man”)—the shift in mood and musical character beginning really a verse earlier with Sicut sagittae in manu potentis (“Just as arrows in the hand of a mighty man”). This fit match between words and music in performance could be heard especially on the glorious “Amen” at the end of Laudate pueri (“Praise, children”) the sheer, terrifying power on terribilis in Pulchra es (“You are beautiful”), and the exultant Lauda Jerusalem (“Praise, Jerusalem”). I was gratified to hear most singers attending to the quantities of the Latin vowels as they sang these texts, and the singers’ diction throughout was superb. The instrumentalists gave a thrilling and nuanced reading of the music; I especially commend Hank Heijink and Daniel Swenberg (theorbos) and Avi Stein (organ) on some of the most sensitive continuo performance I have heard in a long while.

Performed with twenty-eight musicians (instrumentalists and singers combined), individual talents shone. Jolle Greenleaf possesses a purity of voice and clarity of tone that are well suited to Monteverdi’s music. Molly Quinn (soprano) has a more tender voice, apt for “Pulchra es.” Aaron Sheehan’s solid, unaffected musicianship shone forth every time he sang. Sumner Thompson (tenor) and Jesse Blumberg (baritone) gave a gorgeously-matched—full, deep, and rich—rendition of “Audi cœlum,” with Blumberg singing the echo-part from the passageway between chancel and vestry. For me the pinnacle of this performance was the Motet for three voices, “Duo seraphim,” featuring Aaron Sheehan, Zachary Wilder, and Matthew Anderson. These three men sang in fine voice and coherent ensemble, making this movement of the Vespers one of my favorites in this stellar performance.

For a year so young, this performance has already set the bar for all subsequent concerts so terribly, terribly high I fear all may pale by comparison. I commend Scott Metcalfe on a beautifully realized performance and I look forward to the next apparition of Green Mountain Project in the Boston area. As one woman I spoke to the day after the concert said, “What you heard was what a Venetian prince would have heard in 1610, neither less nor more.” Truer words. . .

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.
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6 Comments

  1. There were no Venetian princes in 1610, or at any other time; Venice was a republic. Otherwise this review captures very well the experience of this amazing performance, especially the part about setting the bar so high. These musicians did not perform as if they were working hard, or giving it their best, or even as if they were full of inspiration; they played and sang like they were possessed by demons of joy. When I left I felt like I could barely breathe.

    Comment by SamW — January 9, 2013 at 9:06 am

  2. Right on. Venice had Doges, who were specifically denied hereditary status. The portraits of all Doges can be seen in the Palazzo’s Council Hall – but for that of Faliero, whose unsuccessful coup attempt (to establish dynastic power?) led to his being decapitated between the two columns at the water’s edge of the palace (and therefore a bad omen to pass between, ever since), and his portrait then obscured by a black cloth. We will be in Venice in two months. Povera me.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — January 9, 2013 at 2:15 pm

  3. But were there patricians who, if not specifically titled”princes,” were nonetheless effectively accorded the status of nobility?

    Anyway, I was sorry that I couldn’t be there on the strength of the preview article, and I am all the more sorry to have missed it after reading this review.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 10, 2013 at 2:34 am

  4. There were families of great wealth and prestige that had a hereditary
    right to sit in the Council, a patricianate; but they were not lords,
    with personal authority over their own subjects, and thus cannot
    properly be called princes. The distinction is meaningful in this
    context, because when Monteverdi left the court of Mantua for Venice
    he ceased to be the servant of a feudal lord, subject to the largesse
    and whims of that lord, and became a public employee. It was a
    significant emancipation, and foreshadowed the broader emancipation of
    composers and their music from the confines of courtly entertainment
    that occurred over the next two centuries. It was more or less the
    same emancipation that Mozart achieved when he moved from Salzburg
    to Vienna.

    Comment by SamW — January 10, 2013 at 11:14 am

  5. Bettina, in two months, when you’re standing in front of the Doge’s Palace, you should try singing (sotto voce, of course) Gene Autry’s ballad from his cowboy-film tribute to La Serenissima, “Sheep Herders of the Veneto,” that film intended as a response to the “spaqhetti western” (I think he termed his attempt the “fegato Veneziana western,” to wit: “Git along, li’l Doges.” I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten the lyrics, but I did hear that those Doges didn’t always get along.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — January 10, 2013 at 6:13 pm

  6. P.S. Yes, I know that “Git along, li’l dogies” was really sung by Roy Rogers, not Gene Autry. But I wasn’t trying for historical accuracy!

    Comment by Alan Levitan — January 11, 2013 at 5:14 pm

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