Classical Concert Review: Boston Baroque Celebrates Monteverdi — Beautifully

I am starting to love Vespers of 1610 deeply, so I am happy to be given so many opportunities by first-rate groups to re-experience it.


Boston Baroque taking a bow at the end of its performance of “Vespers.” Photo: Julian Bullitt.

By Susan Miron

It is a banner time in Boston for Claudio Monteverdi (1567- 1643), the composer who stood on the cusp of the stylistic transition to the Baroque, an innovator in the creation of both church and secular music. The Boston Early Music Festival is presenting a trilogy of his operas in June, and last month performed his Songs of Love and War. They will perform Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 in June. The Cantata Singers performed The Vespers of 1610 just last season. In January, New York’s Green Mountain Projects will be performing the Monteverdi piece in Boston. This weekend at Boston’s Jordan hall the honors fell to the period instrument orchestra Boston Baroque (née Banchetto Musicale) under the spirited direction of its longtime music director, Martin Pearlman. This was a special Monteverdi homecoming for this group, having performed Vespers of 1610 several years ago, and having made (in 1998) a Grammy-nominated CD of this piece. Last year, in honor of their fortieth anniversary, Boston Baroque recorded Monteverdi’s rarely performed opera, Il Ritorno d’Ullise in patria (available on Linn Records in early 2015). And in April, the ensemble will perform Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 in Warsaw for the 2015 Ludwig van Beethoven Festival.

At the time of its composition, Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 (a.k.a. “Vespro della Beata Vergine”) was the most audacious and ambitious work of music ever composed. Monteverdi published these Vespers when he was 43, close to the end of his long tenure at the court of Gonzaga in Mantua. We are not sure of the original purpose for these Vespers, but many scholars speculate that these ingenious, beautiful settings of Marian motets were made to be a calling card, an attention getter that would help Monteverdi procure another job, probably the prestigious one he got in 1613 – the maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in Venice (which has, amazingly, a seven second echo).

The Vespers opens with a quote from Monteverdi’s famous opera Orfeo. Each performance of this piece is quite, if not radically, different from the last one heard, in large part because the conductor must make an array of choices on issues of performance (and liturgical) practice. Pearlman writes about this process (in his program notes):

Like the music, the chorus must be large enough to divide into anywhere from four to ten voice parts, and it sometimes divides into separate choirs. The orchestra displays a rich variety of instrumental colors… but the instruments are specified only in certain movements. For much of the piece, it is the conductor who must determine the orchestration – if, where, and when to double voice parts with instruments and which instruments to employ in much of the vocal music and in many of the orchestral ritornellos. It is also left to the conductor to decide whether to assign some passages in the choral movements to solo singers. Thus the Vespers can vary greatly from one performance to another.

Monteverdi’s Vespers is the perfect music for various Marian feasts during the year; the texts he set here have these gatherings have in common. Monteverdi ingenuously built all of the piece’s major movements – psalms, sonata, hymn, the entire Magnificat – on the traditional Gregorian plainchant for those texts. “In other words,” writes Pearlman, “he [Monteverdi] used the notes of the old chant as a fixed voice (cantus firmus) over which he built elaborate compositions…. This creates a clash of styles – an astonishing variety of ‘modern’ music superimposed upon an old-style cantus firmus technique. The two styles are reconciled with breathtaking beauty, and the technique allows Monteverdi to build an enormous structure that goes beyond anything his contemporaries were able to achieve.”

Given his thirty voice chorus and twenty-three piece period-instrument orchestra, Pearlman had all the powerful resources he needed to make this performance of Vespers 1610 exceptional. Sopranos Yulia van Doren, who was making her Boston Baroque debut, and Teresa Wakim, a well-known Boston gem, were paired to perfection, generating an outstanding (often to the point of angelic) sound. Each had a memorable solo with a lone, plucked theorbo in “Ave Maris Stella.” I knew Wakim’s voice from her appearance with other ensembles, and it is always a pleasure to hear her. Their poignant duet in “Pulcra est, amica mea” (“You are beautiful, my love”), based on one of the many settings drawn from the Bible’s Song of Songs, was one of the evening’s high points.

Another of Boston’s early music stars, Aaron Sheehan, was part of the superb tenor team, along with Thomas Cooley (another Boston Baroque debut). The two were terrific throughout, most memorably in their duet across the balcony from each other in the melismatic “Duo Seraphim.” In the motet, “Audi Coelum,” Sheehan sang on stage with only organ accompaniment; the last word he sang was then echoed from the balcony by Cooley, whose echo was a shortened version of the first word. Thus gaudio becomes audio, benedicam, becomes dicam, and so on.

Chances to display the abilities of the Boston Baroque choir abounded. The group’s membership was quite impressive, filled with names I recognized from the early music world. I am still adjusting my ears to the sounds of Baroque instruments; for some reason it is taking an unusually long period of adjustment (my appreciation of the vocal music of the period took less time). That said,, even someone unmoved by Baroque strings would undoubtedly value the amazing virtuosity and infectious enthusiasm of violinists Christina Day Martinson (concertmaster) and Sarah Darling (principal second violin). The cornet players had a real workout, and, by and large, did themselves (Michael Collver, Christopher Belluscio and Paul Perfetti) proud, as did the three sackbut (early trombone) players (Steven Lundahl, Liza Malamut, and Brian Kay). Pearlman likes brisk tempi, so fast passages posed a considerable challenge that was deftly met.

I am starting to love this piece deeply, so I am happy to be given so many opportunities by first-rate groups to re-experience it. The Boston Baroque presentation stands out as the one with a stunning number of fabulous singers — they were the jewels in this beautiful performance’s crown.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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