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Musica Sacra Celebrates a Genius

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Mary Beekman (Susan Wilson photo)

Mary Beekman began her 40th season with Musica Sacra this weekend at First Church Congregational in Cambridge with a contemplative, orchestrally rich Monteverdi Vespers. Her 31-voice choir, augmented with two guest basses and six soloists, sang largely hashed and changed positions for works featuring a long unison cantus firmus melodies or double choir (like the Nisi Dominus movement). The choir presented a well-unified, finely blended tone throughout, with clear, lightly declaimed Latin text and restrained dynamic contrasts in the five psalm settings.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was already famous as a madrigalist and composer of the operas Orfeo and Arianna, but when he brought out his vocal collection of 1610, he had published no church music since his student work under Ingegneri in 1582. Still in the service of the Mantuan court, had not yet begun his three decades of service as maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in Venice. Music at Mantua was full of jaunty syncopations and cross rhythms through the music of the Dutch composer Giaches de Wert, who preceded Monteverdi at court. New developments in choral writing at St. Mark’s had started to become influential by this time: especially the use of contrasting dynamics and cori spezzati (double choirs alternating with one another throughout a motet or mass). The Venetians loved orchestral color and sometimes even replaced choirs with groups of instruments, introducing echo effects and dramatizing speeches of the saints and apostles.

The normal service of Latin Vespers includes five psalms, a hymn, and the Magnificat, or “Song of Mary.” The psalms were usually made specific to Christian services by framing them with an antiphon (a short text specific to the occasion) and adding a doxology (praise to the Trinity). At the ducal chapel in Mantua, Monteverdi could vary the antiphons chosen since the court had been given a special Papal license. He supplied the resulting sections in his Vespers with instrumental accompaniment ranging from basso continuo group to an ensemble of 13 individual parts. His Vespers would have been liturgically appropriate for seven different feasts of the Virgin Mary throughout the church year; such services held on the evenings surrounding these feasts, were typically more elaborate occasions.

The first ten sections of Monteverdi’s Vespers, sung in published order with no interpolations of plainchant, alternate ornate chamber music and continuo with more substantial, fully accompanied psalm settings. Beekman chose to use two violins, two violas, three cellos, and one particularly lush voiced Italian bass violone (Andrew Arceci) playing on gut strings with smaller Baroque bows at modern pitch. Both Julia McKenzie and Lisa Brooke distinguished themselves by ornamenting the violin passages throughout, smoothly encouraging a more expressive approach in slow movements, and adding a much-needed fiery quality to triple-time sections.

Beekman handled one of the most difficult aspects of the Vespers straightforwardly, without fuss or undue accents: the fauxbourdon or falsobordone chanted sections. Recent research indicates that even in the presence of many skilled operatic singers, Monteverdi’s choirs would have definitely performed these sections. Although some of the more decorated choral sections may have been intended for solo singers, Musica Sacra also achieved mellifluous unisons in these more ornamented sections, showing off the diversity inherent in this motley publication from 1610.

Composers around 1600 were diverse figures, such as the conservative Palestrina in Rome, Victoria in Spain, the Gabrieli family in Venice, Lassus in Munich, and many northern cathedral musicians. Most followed the common guiding principle of the Council of Trent ― sacred words must be the master of the music and not merely act as its excuse. Their contemporaries, humanists who researched Greek drama and created the earliest operas in Northern Italy, agreed to this precept. The most frequently performed sacred choral music was harmonically simple falsobordone: chordal chanting in which the composer provided some simple chords and left the words to be sung in natural speech rhythms, with the choir breaking into complex polyphony only at the end of each section of the text. This was the most conservative of the available styles, but even in the Sistine Chapel, where instruments were not allowed, singers often ornamented the chants.

Continuo players Olav Chris Henriksen (theorbo) and Heinrich Christensen (portative organ, playing standing throughout) supported the solo singers well, maintaining a tight rhythmic sense and supporting cadential passages (usually without a conductor); from my vantage point near the front of the audience (for the first half of the concert), the organ and full strings often swamped the highly unified choral sound, and the theorbo was best heard in Pulchra es (a soprano duet full of ebb and flow which Janet Ross and Agnes Coakley Cox sang with great delicacy), and in the tenor duet passages of Audi coelum. Cellist Colleen McGary-Smith contributed incisive playing to some of the continuo sections, but was placed the farthest from the solo singers, and fairly far behind them, so I would be surprised if she could always hear them clearly. To bring out Audi coelum’s famous echo effects, tenor Max Blum-Campo retired to the far stage right side of the transept so that his clear, light responses could answer Jason Sabol’s richer, darker tenor lead. Bass Ulysses Thomas stood out as the soloist of the evening, his clear, ringing tone adding vibrancy and focus to every solo, duet, and ensemble he entered.

I moved to the top of the back balcony at the intermission, so the final three sections of the Vespers came across much more clearly: the choir and orchestra immediately balanced better in the Sancta Maria, and Beekman brought the soprano group of 13 women to the front for their very expressive rendering of Ave maris stella. The final concerto-like Magnificat wrose  the evening’s highlight, featuring many solo pairings from the professional orchestra and highly contrasted expression from the chorus. Cornetto players Michael Collver, Nathaniel Cox, and Kurt Wiesman played with contrasts of rich, dark tone and occasional trumpet-like brilliance, excelling in the final Magnificat. The three small sackbuts, played by Steven Lundahl, Bodie Pfost, and Mack Ramsey, made a fantastic addition to the orchestral complement, as modern trombones would have overpowered the chorus and the delicate, highly ornamented playing of the cornetti seated right in front of them.

The Vespers exhibit the most modern effects of expressive declamation, showy coloratura, echo effects, terraced dynamics (a Venetian innovation), and free use of instruments. Some scholars have implied that Vespers is closer in style to secular dramatic music of the period than to church music. The vocal parts of the opening Domine ad adiuvandum are mostly overlaid over a transposed version of the prelude to the early opera Orfeo. Duo seraphim is irrelevant to a Marian feast and portrays the dramatic event in Luke’s Gospel from which the liturgical Sanctus is taken. The solo vocal coloratura of Audi coelum is echoed by a second voice, recreating an effect from Arianna. The instrumental ritornello in Ave maris stella is very similar to those found in Orfeo.

Why would Monteverdi have composed such a modern work? For most of his time at Mantua, Monteverdi felt overworked and underpaid. He felt that conditions there were causing his health to suffer and he threatened to leave. We know that Monteverdi dedicated his Vespers to the Pope and visited the Vatican in 1610. The dedication may have been intended to show that he would be a suitable candidate for senior Papal musician. According to Clifford Bartlett, “Monteverdi might have expected the Psalms to win favour for the way that they showed how the tradition intonation formulae could be combined with the latest compositional style,” as the Vespers were typical of Northern Italian festival music and unlike anything sung in Rome at the time. Contrastingly, Monteverdi may have intended his Vespers to make an impression in Venice, the center of the music publishing industry.

The Green Mountain Man

Mary Beekman’s engaging historical program notes [HERE] clarified musical elements and compositional principles at work in each of Monteverdi’s very diverse thirteen movements. She included a glossary of Catholic terms relating to church music (antiphon, intonation, plainchant), elements of the Latin liturgy (Introit and Doxology), and requested a brief announcement preceding the concert to point out Monteverdi’s continued use of cantus firmus melodies in his most inventive and modern “seconda practica” movements. Beekman recalled how her early experiences in Cambridge partly inspired her choice of the Vespers to mark Musica Sacra’s 60th year: “My freshman year at Harvard I took a course in Monteverdi’s music which relied on a biography by Leo Schrade, a musicologist specializing in early music who taught for 20 years at Yale. The book bore the uninspired title “Monteverdi,” but Schrade subtitled it “Creator of Modern Music.” Monteverdi hardly effected the revolution on his own, but as tonight’s performance of his Vespers demonstrated, he certainly revolutionized the use of music in the church. It stands as testimonial to the inventiveness and genius of the man who created it, but it also stands as a glorious work for the ages.”

Musica Sacra’s 60th subscription season continues with British Carols (December 14, 2019), Baroque favorites (March 21, 2020), and the Mary Beekman’s favorites from her 40 years directing the ensemble (May 9, 2020).

Laura Prichard teaches throughout the Boston area as a certified K-12 teacher of music/dance/art, as a theater pianist (Winchester Cooperative Theater), and at the university level (Harvard Libraries, Bunker Hill CC, and formerly at Northeastern and UMass). She was the Assistant Director for the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus from 1995-2003, under Vance George.

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