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‘Tis the Season…for Monteverdi


The Green Giant
The Green Giant

What began as a celebration has now become a tradition. Proclaiming the quadricentennial of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, Jolle Greenleaf scheduled a New Year’s 2010 performance in Times Square—epicenter of our own annual announcement of time’s passage. Now she rings in each year with Monteverdi. Jolle Greenleaf is now artistic director, Scott Metcalfe music director, of Green Mountain Project, which takes its name from a literal translation of “Monteverdi.” Scott Metcalfe met with me to discuss the group and their upcoming concerts—especially the one at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge on January 5th.

This “special project” of the New York-based early music group TENET brings Monteverdi first to Manhattan at Church of St. Mary the Virgin (steps from the heart of Times Square) and then reprises in Cambridge. In 2010 and again in 2011 they performed Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine da concerto composto sopra canti fermi (to give this lengthy work its full title), and this year they will play that magisterial work again. In 2012, thanks to the historical research and artful arranging of Scott Metcalfe, Green Mountain Project presented “A Grand Festive Vespers in Venice, c. 1640,” combining music of Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrielli, and Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. What began as “a Monteverdi party” offering a collegial, friendly performance of the 1610 Vespers—initially with 28 musicians volunteering their time and talents, donated space, and free admission—is now a larger-scale operation with paid musicians (always a good thing, in this author’s humble estimation), tickets for sale, fundraising efforts, and a budget. Still 28 musicians, the ensemble is led by Scott Metcalfe (violin) and includes an enviable roster: Jolle Greenleaf (soprano), Aaron Sheehan and Zachary Wilder (tenors), Avi Stein (organ), among others. (The full complement of musicians can be seen here.) The concerts still take place in the first few days of January: a convenient time for the musicians to come together (some Manhattan-based, others Boston-based), and a worthy beginning for the new year

This year, for the first time, Green Mountain Project turned to the crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter to raise funds. Over the month of December, 95 backers contributed $10,180 to Green Mountain Project, most contributing smaller sums to help reach this goal. In addition to the much-needed financial resources, this successful effort attests to the passion for Monteverdi’s Vespers and the highly regarded performances these musicians deliver. According to Scott Metcalfe, Kickstarter is one way to address our country’s limited national, institutional funding for the arts with what limited funds are available going to a restricted class of highly visible and entrenched organizations.  “Arts don’t pay for themselves,” says Scott Metcalfe. “The market relationship is a bad one; it leads to a dearth of art,” he explained. The true worth of art, he continued, is “human spirituality, community, human relationships” – all the paths and avenues we use to explore our place in the world.

And what better way to examine our place in the world than through Monteverdi’s Vespers? In early 17th-century Venice, the church was the concert-hall; Monteverdi’s music runs to more than an hour and a half, with its setting of the Marian cursus. Performed in a liturgical setting, this would run even longer. Printed in Venice (a center of publishing at the time), Monteverdi’s composition may have formed part of an unsuccessful job application for a post at the Vatican (as Metcalfe, and others, believe). That would certainly account for the composer showcasing his protean talents in this one lengthy work. If true, Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine joins with J. S. Bach’s B-minor Mass and Brandenburg Concerti as beloved and canonized works that did not score the composer the position sought. Rome’s loss is our gain.

Monteverdi trained in Renaissance prima practica, and transforms late Renaissance style into Baroque; we can see this transformation at work in the 1610 Vespers. Over the span of this singular composition – all composed over a cantus firmus – Monteverdi deploys a cycle of chant + polyphonic setting + solo five times, then adds a hymn (Ave maris stella) and the Magnificat. This composition encompasses a wide variety of musical techniques and forms, both sacred and secular (including sonata, hymn, and motet); it could serve as a musical illustration of the Baroque principle, “more is better.” Scott Metcalfe, by background a Baroque violinist but, especially as music director of Blue Heron now quite versed in15th– and 16th-century music, finds that this composition makes more sense when grounded in a background of sixteenth-century performance practices; they bring out some proportional relationships that affect the overall rhythmic feel of the piece. This approach makes clear the transformations Monteverdi wrought, the sequence of mensurations, and the contribution to our now-familiar sonata form which mark these Vespers. The first Psalm, Dixit Dominus, is non-directional, so clearly not a tonal piece of music. Harmonically, the Vespers draw on all the resources of modal music, plus contrapuntal technique—and the freedom to break through it all unleash a soloist above a continuo line.

I asked Metcalfe how Green Mountain Project’s Monteverdi Vespers would differ from the 1997 Boston Baroque recording led by Martin Pearlman; he said, “There are different ideas about the number of performers in the scoring of this work, pitch, and transposition.” While Boston Baroque perform the Psalm “Lauda Jerusalem” and Magnificat pitched as written, Green Mountain Project transposes these down a fourth – in keeping with 16th-century practice. Concert pitch is a = 466 (roughly a semitone higher than modern concert-pitch): the norm for Venice in the early seventeenth century. Using this pitch, the violins are more powerful against the brass instruments, and it also places the soprano parts higher which makes musical sense of the parts.

Green Mountain Project represents an exciting collaboration between the musical communities of New York and Boston. Metcalfe sees this performance as an opportunity to combine Boston’s growing pool of increasingly skilled singers with a highly developed sense of style together with peers and compatriots from New York. The performances aim to present the music as historically accurate as possible to heighten the dramatic and emotional power of the performance. As Metcalfe put it, “I hope that the historical enquiry that undergirds some of our decisions enables a more immediate connection with musicians of the past and creates empathy with the living human beings of four hundred years ago.” There are differences in performance, of course: this is a concert, not a liturgical setting; the performances do not fall on a major Marian feast; and the soprano parts are sung by women. In concert, the chant propers will be from the Feast of the Purification (now usually celebrated on February 2nd, and also known as Candlemas). So what Green Mountain Project will offer at St. Paul’s Church, Cambridge, is very much a concert in the form of a Vespers – not unlike Monteverdi’s original performance. Future years will hopefully see Green Mountain Project undertake larger-scale projects with more performers in larger spaces; what will not change is their focus on Monteverdi’s music.

I asked Scott Metcalfe for some parting words for BMInt readers: “Everyone should come. It’s one of the greatest pieces ever written, with an incredible variety of scoring, affect, expression. A great mixture.”

Green Mountain Project, led by Scott Metcalfe, will perform Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers at Church of St. Mary the Virgin
(145 West 46th Street, New York City) at 7:30pm on January 2nd and 3rd, then again at 7:30pm on January 5th at St. Paul’s Church
(29 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge MA).

Tickets may be purchased in advance through TENET’s website here.

Green Mountain Project performs in New York
Green Mountain Project performs in New York

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