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November 16, 2014

Boston Baroque with Vivid Vespers

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The Green Mountain

The Green Mountain

Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine of 1610 follows what are arguably two of the composer’s greatest developments in music. His fifth book of madrigals, published in 1605, made forays into the compositional style we now recognize as “baroque”. Furthermore, two warmly received operas—the first of their kind—L’Orfeo, and L’Arianna, were published in 1607 and 1608, respectively. Elements from both these pieces figure prominently in the Vespers offered by Boston Baroque at Jordan Hall on Friday.

At the core of the collection of pieces that comprise the Vespers are nine interlocking motets and psalm verses, bookended with an initial versicle/response and concluding sonata/hymn/Magnificat. Motet settings are significantly less elaborate than the psalm settings, consisting often of just a solo or small ensemble of voices, yet employing a range of novel textures and compositional techniques. Contrast this to the psalm settings, which revel in the color of a much larger ensemble; these grander works set the related Gregorian plainchant—the bedrock melody for the Monteverdi’s monumental settings. It is the intense concentration of the hymns that remind us of the more familiar Monteverdi. Although sacred, these hymns recall the flexibility and experimentation of Monteverdi’s later secular madrigals, and this stark contrast has spurred a long-standing debate as to whether the hymns were intended to be performed as an integral part of the Vespers, or simply happened to accompany the work in its publication. Yet interspersions of miniatures such as we heard provide contrast to the more substantial psalm settings.

More operatic elements came in the bookends. The trumpet calls that announce the beginning of the Vespers are lifted directly from L’Orfeo. The concluding triptych reveals Monteverdi’s most elaborate technique, employing many of the more dramatic effects from the operas. The Sonata sopra ‘Sancta Maria ora pro nobis’ prominently features small-ensemble instrumental variations in the backdrop of various versions of a single phrase, Ave MariaSancta Maria, ora pro nobis—almost a Baroque version of Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This showmanship is followed by rich choral textures of the Ave maris stella featuring rich choral writing for both ensemble and solo voices alternating with an instrumental ritornello. The orchestral and choral forces united in an awe-inspiring Magnificat that concluded the work.

How fitting that the opening fanfare of the Vespers announced the inaugural concert of Boston Baroque’s 2014-2015 season. There are many decisions that need to be made in performing Monteverdi’s work. Under the leadership of music direction Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque has treated the Vespers as a signature, having performed it multiple times over many years (even issuing a 1997 recording that has remained a standard). Friday’s performance brought to bear that accumulated experience, and provided a satisfying and balanced version.

Much of the heavy lifting on Friday evening was left to tenor soloists Thomas Cooley and Aaron Sheehan. Cooley, making his premiere with the ensemble, has a substantial voice that is replete in its lower registers while maintaining a robust sound as it climbs higher. He gave the recit-like motet Nigra sum a loving read; flexibly adorning the work with a supple ornamentation that benefited from his darker timbres. Sheehan’s florid tenor played nicely off Cooley’s substantial voice, particularly in movements where the two were paired in duets such as the Audi Coelum, in which Cooley, performing from the balcony, played haunting echo to Sheehan’s aria. The full hall seemed lacking in reverberation, vitiating the echo effect that this movement required. Another memorable moment was Duo seraphim, in which Cooley and Sheehan, both singing from the balcony, were joined by tenor Jonas Budris on stage. The effect of the movement is sonically disorienting, but the spatial play of three voices was exhilarating. Soprano soloists Teresa Wakim and Yulia Van Doren also made for a handsome pairing of voices in Pulchra es. Dana Whitesides and Bradford Gleim, although appearing only briefly, were the bass soloists throughout the work.

The various movements featuring full chorus and orchestra also fared well in music director Martin Pearlman’s fleet interpretation. Friday’s performance tailored the Vespers for the Feast of Assumption (as a collection of Marian motets, the work can be applied to any holiday celebrating Mary) and incorporated chant appropriate to Assumption before the Psalm settings. These introductory chants were robustly intoned by the tenor section—a choice that accentuated the focal plainchant at the center of the psalm settings. Although balance between choir and period orchestra was at times an issue (period brass can often be overwhelming) the choir provided a well-rounded sound that playfully interacted with the period orchestra. This was particularly evident in the sonata section, in which the sopranos achieved a pristine boy-choir-like clarity. Overall, Friday’s collaboration between choir, orchestra and soloists made a compelling case for why this work appears so frequently on Boston Baroque’s programs. Thoughtfully tailored, the two-hour-long traversal of Monteverdi’s Marian motets seemed continually to say something new with ever more interesting and beautiful music.

Among his professional singing experiences, Sudeep Agarwala has performed with many local choruses.

6 Comments

  1. I first heard the Vespro della Beata Vergine when Michael Tilson Thomas led a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra when he was an Assistant Conductor. I wasn’t present, but I listened on the radio to the Saturday concert. at the time I was around thirty years old and had become acquainted with baroque music by composers such as Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, and Marc-Antoine Charpentier. I was also familiar with plainchant praying of vespers through couple of years spent at a Benedictine monastery. But none of that prepared me for the explosion of music which I heard that evening in Monteverdi’s Vespers. Since then, I have always held the work in high regard, so much so that I bought several LP recordings of it.

    The performance by Boston Baroque on Friday — the first time I had attended a live performance — was quite satisfying. The only unfortunate thing about it was the comportment of the sopranos when they were singing their parts. The word which occurred to me at the time was “coquettish.” Their facial expressions and movements of head and body struck me as more playful than serious. Toward the end, it seemed to me that the cornetti were having a bit of trouble with their parts. But that was only a minor problem. Apart from the inappropriate show put on by the sopranos (who sang well, notwithstanding), the performance as a whole and in its various elements was excellent. I’m looking forward to the next time they program it. Kudos to Maestro Pearlman and Boston Baroque.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 16, 2014 at 11:32 pm

  2. To Mr. Whipple:

    I am so happy that you were able to join us on Friday night for your first live experience of the Vespers, we had a wonderful time sharing Monteverdi’s transcendent music with our audiences.

    I would draw your attention to the origin of the text of the soprano duet with which you took issue. “Pulchras Es” is from the Song of Songs, a secular love poem attributed to Solomon. It is famously sensual and highly erotic in its imagery.

    “Thou art beautiful, O my love, sweet and comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army set in array. Turn away thy eyes from me, for they have made me flee away.”

    I hope any discomfort you might have experienced might be allayed by this translation.

    Comment by Yulia Van Doren — November 18, 2014 at 1:20 am

  3. Mr. Whipple:

    I think you were overly critical about the sopranos, who were absolutely wonderful. I don’t expect to hear better sopranos performing this anytime soon. Bravi to both!

    Comment by Susan Miron — November 18, 2014 at 8:44 am

  4. Thank you to Ms. Van Doren for the explanation. I am happy to have it. In the first place, it reassures me that I did not misapprehend what I saw. More importantly, it lets me know that there was a reason for it.

    Nevertheless I would respectfully suggest to Mss. Van Doren and Wakim — and others who might sing “Pulchra Es” some time — that performing it as a love song in the Monteverdi Vespers is inappropriate. Despite its origin as a secular love poem, it had been “repurposed” as it was brought into Hebrew Scripture and the Christian Bible, and then addressed to the Virgin Mary in liturgical use, which is where Monteverdi found it and how he presumably intended it. To remove it from that context and bring it back 2,500 years to the time of Solomon is to misrepresent its meaning in context.

    I can imagine someone taking the motet and calling it a madrigal and putting it on a program of “Baroque Love Songs.” In that context, it would make sense to play it as an ordinary love song, taking the words merely at face value. But last Friday it was “Vespers,” and it seems to me the proper way to perform it is to attempt to convey the meaning the composer intended in setting a church service. The question isn’t what the words meant to the original author, but what they meant to those who included it in worship.

    Again, compliments, directly this time, on your singing.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 18, 2014 at 2:54 pm

  5. I’m loath to comment on my own article, but do so to note that the composer who slips a superfluous ahi lingua into his fourth book of Madrigals was probably more than aware of the erotic language of the Song of Songs. If we’re to pretend that the Bible (Hebrew or otherwise) is scrubbed of erotic language and meaning, we should also be so kind as to ignore countless manuscripts and poems by monks expressing devotion as erotic love.

    Regardless, the author is dead, and Barthes killed him, and that brings me to Friday’s concert. If I were to comment about the dramatic reads of the concert, I would have written about the applause and intermission that interrupted the Vespers–it is after all, a liturgical piece, and neither applause nor intermissions play a role in that. That’s just an example, but I mention it so say that there’s a benefit to suspending disbelief in light of the cold, hard truth that we live in: it was Jordan Hall, not St. Mark’s, and–in my humble opinion–there is room for performance, expression, and drama in that reality.

    I should also say that “coquetishness” comes off harsh, especially since all the other soloists emoted during their performances–I wonder why the others aren’t commented upon?

    Ms. Van Doren, please accept my apologies in not writing more about your performance. Indeed, my apologies to all the soloists who were only mentioned. The performance I attended was delightful, and I hope to attend many more in the future.

    Comment by Sudeep Agarwala — November 18, 2014 at 6:46 pm

  6. I am very grateful for everyone’s compliments; thank you!

    This comment thread is a good reminder for me as to one the greatest strengths of the musical experience: that there is plenty of space for varying interpretations. Indeed, isn’t this the beauty of music?! There really are as many interpretations possible as there are stars in the sky. What a joy.

    I appreciate everyone’s comments, as well as the lovely initial review. Thank you, Sudeep!

    Comment by Yulia Van Doren — November 19, 2014 at 1:20 am

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