The vocal ensemble Tenet, under the direction of Scott Metcalfe, performed a “Vespers for the Feast of St. John the Baptist” as part of its Green Mountain Project on Sunday at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge. As the bilingually punned name suggests, the project concentrates on the music of Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643). For this particular program, the group’s nine singers were joined by two violins, a bass violin, two cornetti, four sackbuts, two theorbos, and a positiv organ for a glowing concert of early Baroque sacred delights.
As Metclafe explains in his informative program notes, there is no actual collection of music by Monteverdi under the title of the program (as opposed to the famous 1610 collection of “Vespers for the Holy Virgin”). There is, however, ample evidence to suggest that the composer led various Vespers programs throughout his time as maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice, as well as documentation detailing what music might have been included in such ceremonies. Based on this sound research and his own keen musical tastes, Metcalfe put together a program of music—primarily by Monteverdi, but also by some others—that could very easily have been heard at the time.
To listeners familiar with Monteverdi’s work in madrigals and music-drama, his liturgical pieces can, at first, sound a bit tame; intense chromaticisms and plaintive monodies are scarcely to be heard. What emerges instead is music by a master dramatist who adapted his skills to the venue in which he was working. Listening to this music in the large sanctuary of St. Paul’s, one realizes that simply the acoustic space for which the composer was writing would not have lent itself to many of the musical devices that worked so well in the relatively intimate secular world of patron families. The vastness of the church sound required a slightly different approach, as did the expectations of the Venetian liturgical culture. So Monteverdi channeled his expressive gifts largely into broad triadic harmonies textured with tumbling stretti, slowly exploding textural crescendi, and subtly energetic wordpainting of texts that are often little more than colorfully worded liturgical laundry lists. Though glimmers of madrigalism can occasionally be caught, the main events are the many and varied glorious noises.
And what a glorious noise the Tenet ensemble made! From the outset, it was clear not only that these musicians were skilled technicians, but also that they loved the music they were performing. The energy with which they delivered pieces like Dixit Dominus was at once spacious and focused, especially from the singers, whose clear diction cut vibrantly through the church echo chamber. Though always combining voices with instruments, Monteverdi’s various textures especially allowed many of the vocalists to shine, both as soloists and as ensemble musicians. Tenors Owen McIntosh and Lawrence Jones, and bass Misha Bouvier formed a bright and brilliant trio in Confitebor tibi Domine, a technical tour de force that pits them antiphonally with and against a larger group of singers joyously enumerating God’s creations. In Currite populi,the only solo vocal piece on the program, the sweet, slightly reedy voice of tenor Jason McStoots praised John the Baptist with the excitement of a child that brought out the true elation in the music. The highlight of the evening was Monteverdi’s setting of Beatus vir,in which his talent for turning sacred inventory into dramatic narrative is particularly evident. The ensemble delivered this narrative with an easy vibrancy, like six people and a couple of violins conversing with happy passion about how great it is to be virtuous.
The works on the program by other composers were presented with equal verve. Delightful, though not always inspired, instrumental pieces by Fancesco Upser (c. 1560–1641), Gioseffo Guami (1542–1611), and Giovanni Gabriele (c. 1555–1612) allowed the players to demonstrate various facets of their engaging musicality. Sopranos Jolle Greenleaf (also Tenet’s artistic director) and Molly Quinn sang the tripping passage-work in Giovanni Felice Sances’s (c. 1600–1679) charming setting of Psallite Domino with almost playful ease. In contrast, the sheer hugeness of Gabriele’s Vox Domine was brought to the fore in a powerful performance that captured the thrill of grandeur inherent in that composer’s music. Other than the plainchant Ut queant laxis, the one chronological outlier on the program was the setting of Fuit homo missus a Deo by Giovanni Palestrina (c. 1525–1611). All elisions and smooth, swirling counterpoint, it was also the one piece that did not benefit from the ensemble’s musical approach. They seemed unable to bring out the large-scale shape of the piece, resulting in it becoming somewhat bogged down by its own relative lack of color. The program ended, however, with a stunning performance by the entire group of a remarkable Magnificat setting by the little-known nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602–c. 1676). It was a rare and satisfying closer, as well as appropriate: her unique sense of scansion and vocal coloring would, no doubt, have garnered high praise even from the maestro himself.