Classical Music Review: Green Mountain Project — Monteverdi at his most Audacious
Green Mountain Project has done everything right, paying careful, historically informed attention to pitch, transposition, tempi, number of performers, and tuning.
By Susan Miron
Framed by two lit-up Christmas trees and wreathes with red ribbons, St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge, MA looked festive indeed for what turned out to be a spectacular performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s landmark Vespers of 1610 on January 5. The piece’s title page reads:
FOR THE MOST HOLY
A MASS FOR SIX VOICES
[FOR CHURCH CHOIRS]
AND VESPERS TO BE SUNG
BY SEVERAL VOICES,
WITH SEVERAL SACRED SONGS
SUITED FOR CHAPELS OF THE CHAMBERS OF PRINCES
OF CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI
AND DEDICATED TO THE MOST BLESSED POPE PAUL V.
Venice, by Ricciardo Amadino.
Green Mountain Project‘s stellar concert performances in early January are now an annual event, and word has gotten around. They performed this piece before as an outgrowth of the New York early music group Tenet (to bring Monteverdi to Manhattan) — musicians volunteering, space donated — in 2010. This year their two NYC concerts were packed as was the performance in the cavernous St. Paul’s Church in Harvard Square. Artistic director Jolle Greenleaf (also a top-notch soprano) and music director Scott Metcalfe (also music director of Boston’s Blue Heron) have done everything right, paying careful, historically informed attention to pitch, transposition, tempi, number of performers, and tuning. They also enlisted A-List early music players and singers from New York and Boston, who performed exquisitely throughout.
Monteverdi’s monumental Vespers of 1610 (“Vespro della Beata Vergine“) encompasses a musical world of styles, texts, and emotions. Some musicians, including Mr. Metcalfe, believe it was the composer’s bid for a job at the Vatican, which never came to be. Monteverdi did, however, land a job as maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in Venice where he worked until his death in 1643. This performance is based on the Vespers Service, each psalm following a plainchant antiphon and then followed by a sacred song.
The orchestra was excellent, featuring the renowned Julie Andrijeski on violin as well as Mr. Metcalfe, plus two violas, bass violin, and violone. The two cornetti (very tricky to play), Kiri Tollaksen and Alexandra Opsahl, were outstanding, as were the three sackbuts players, two theorbo players, and organist Avi Stein.
Green Mountain’s singers, who generally sang one voice on a part, were given many chances to shine individually. All five tenors were very good, but one must single out Aaron Sheehan, who was so touching in November as the eponymous Orfeo in Boston Early Music Festival’s presentation of the opera by Monteverdi; Jason McStoots, whose diction is unusually good and whose voice is always a great pleasure to hear; and Zachary Wilder, whose voice could have melted the ice outside. (Alert: he is singing on Friday with A Far Cry in Jordan Hall). Bass Mischa Bouvier had great presence and drama.
There is a motet for one voice, for six voices (“Audi coelum“), which was hauntingly lovely, with tenor Sumner Thompson echoed by baritone Jesse Blumberg, and a touching motet for two voices (“Pulchra es“), with sopranos Jolle Greenleaf and Molly Quinn. Mr. McStoots sang the luscious motet for one voice (“Nigra Sum“) adapted from Songs of Songs (“I am dark, but a comely daughter of Jerusalem. Therefore the king loved me and led me into his chamber and said to me: Arise, my love and come away. . .”) “Surge” (arise) was repeated many times, passionately, with the nimble accompaniment of the two theorbos and organ. So powerfully did Mr. McStoots plead that I thought the audience would arise under his hypnotic spell.
The antiphons were sung by small groups of people who appeared each time in a different part of the church: in the choir loft as well as on both sides of the front of the church. The sixth antiphon was sung by all of the singers, now gathered onto the stage. Moving singers around a church during a concert has become a popular device lately: it hasn’t become tiring (at least not yet) because it is stimulating to hear music coming at you from unexpected places and different acoustics.
The grand finale, Monteverdi’s show-stopping Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), was a tour de force for the singers and instrumentalists, a spiritual, musical drama played out before hundreds of rapt listeners. Mr. Metcalfe and Ms. Andrijeski showed off their impressive violin chops, as did the cornettists. Kudos go to Mr. Metcalfe, both conductor (often holding a violin) and a superb writer of program notes. He was an illuminating guide who not only made me love the music more, but helped me to understand it a bit better. His spot-on comments sum up the evening perfectly: “It (The Vespers of 1610) is. . . one of the most profound, most spiritual, most historically aware, most musically audacious, most entertaining and deeply moving variety shows ever conceived, sure to sound as fresh and vivid at its five hundredth anniversary in 2110 as it does today.”