“Whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think on these things.” This was St. Paul’s advice to the first-century Christians in the Greek city of Philippi, and it is also a fitting sentiment for the Green Mountain Project’s most recent artistic venture, which was hosted by St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Cambridge. Jolle Greenleaf founded the Green Mountain Project in 2010 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi’s (Mr. “Green Mountain” himself) 1610 Vespers with performances of the well-loved work. Their current project is a re-creation of a Vespers service as it likely would have been performed at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice (Monteverdi’s professional home in 1640). The group was directed by Scott Metcalfe, who alternately led the group from his violin and the podium, achieving an appropriate representation of the great composer, who was an excellent violinist, often directing performances of his own works. The performers were a mix of Boston and New York-based musicians, all of whom make regular trips between the two cities to participate in this performance venture.
In keeping with period practice, the Vespers principally featured works from Monteverdi’s Selva morale (a collection of sacred works, published around 1640), as well as instrumental works by Giovanni Gabrieli and motets by Gabrieli and the lesser-known Venetian composer, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. The programming choices served the “historical experience” well, including the use of plainchant antiphons, with one exception, namely the hymn setting “Ave maris stella” from the 1610 Vespers. Although the selection may have been meant as a tribute to the group’s inaugural project, it felt stylistically out of balance with the remainder of the program, generally because its musical style was so reminiscent of the composer’s Mantuan works, in particular the largely homophonic choruses and contrapuntal sinfonias from the “Underworld” acts of L’Orfeo (1607). The only other issue with the production was the length of the program (about an hour and forty-five minutes), especially in view of the lack of an intermission and the hardness of the wooden pews.
Aside from these programming issues, the performance itself was truly outstanding, as the performers displayed technical skill and musical artistry of the highest caliber. First and foremost, Scott Metcalfe deserves credit for creating a remarkably unified artistic conception for each individual selection, as well as the entire Vespers service. The orchestra performed with extraordinarily tight ensemble, as well as excellent rapport between smaller instrumental groups within the antiphonal selections. The chanters effectively emulated the blank tone color made popular by the Solesmes monks in the 1930s and 40s. Finally, the chorus created expressive readings of text, not only through effective use of vocal syllabification, but also through shifts in timbre, pacing, and dynamics, all of these exhibiting a clear understanding of the music’s melodic and harmonic structures.
The consistently high level of artistry makes it difficult to point out the high points, though a few moments bear mention here. First was the opening psalm, “Dixit Dominus,” which features sections of very dense polyphony. Although the sheer number of parts makes textual clarity a near impossibility, the group captured the essence of the text through an exhilarating surge of power and intensity. Exceptional among the many excellent solos was Zachary Wilder’s rendition of Monteverdi’s “O quam pulchra” (Oh how lovely). Wilder’s pure, resonant tone served the text’s “lovely” message well, supported by his tasteful use of ornaments, musical pacing, and excellent stage presence. Beyond all of these qualities, his ability to instantaneously shift from vocal violence to a light, ethereal sound was remarkable. The closing selection (Gabrieli’s Magnificat of 1615) offered a rousing and resonant finish to an outstanding concert, as the group executed a slow crescendo of dynamics and intensity over the course of the text, building to a glorious finale.