An Authentic Monteverdi “Vespers”

Monteverdi “Vespers”
St. John the Bapist Church, Brunswick
Nov. 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Emily Isaacson, artistic director of the Oratorio Chorale, is attracting quite a following. On Sunday afternoon, the huge parking lot of St. John the Baptist Church in Brunswick was completely full, and its cavernous interior also. It was the largest audience I have seen for Renaissance music in Maine, and Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (1610) is not exactly a crowd pleaser.

The crowd thinned out a bit after intermission, as some amateur concert-goers realized what they had gotten themselves in for. A complete performance of the Vespers is akin to those Romantic concerts that included three symphonies and a concerto.

As a music critic I have heard such a large number of masses that I have no fear of purgatory. This one was among the best performed, by soloists Molly Quinn, soprano, Virginia Warnken,, mezzo-soprano, tenors Jason McStoot and Lawrence Jones, and baritones Eric Christopher Perry and Sumner Thompson, with a large consort of period instruments led by violinist Scott Metcalfe.

The 67-voice Chorale itself was front and center, with some sections calling for the full ensemble and others smaller groups, which were marched around with appropriate military precision. (The performance was on Veterans Day.)

I’m sure that Isaacson has beaten the bushes for basses, but regrettably as usual, the bass section was not as strong as it should have been. In one section of the final Magnificat, it was up to the low brass section to inspire a proper fear of the Lord.

This may have been due to the music itself, however, in an era when the heroic was represented by a tenor, or counter-tenor.
Monteverdi’s innovations— combinations of secular and liturgical music, wreaths of polyphony around a sustained plain chant, psychological and physical states portrayed in music—were emphasized, but some of the simpler combinations were most effective, such as he use of the soprano voice as an instrument in the Sonata on Holy Mary, which began the second half of the concert, or the delightful recorder parts in the following Hymn to the Star of the Sea (Go Maine!).

The soloists were best in plain melodies as compared to the heavily ornamented passages, which sounded a bit like Handel, but written out. Tremendously difficult vocally but adding little to the beauty of the score.

Since we’re not living in Pakistan, I’m going to commit blasphemy and suggest that the Vespers be shortened considerably, perhaps by half, either by eliminating some verses and repetitions or omitting some complete sections that don’t seem to fit a theme. Isaacson may have already done some pruning —some regard the Vespers as a miscellany, as she points out in the program notes. If so, more is needed.

I’ll end this with a disclaimer. As a former choir boy and soprano soloist, the worrying of a line in the Mass, repeating it ad infinitum, drives me completely up the wall. As we used to say to the born-again, once is enough. Get on with it.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal.  He can be reached a classbeat@netscape.net.