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. . .