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Magnificat and The Whole Noyse join forces to reconstruct a Christmas Mass

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Yesterday afternoon in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the San Francisco Early Music Society (SFEMS) hosted the first concert in the 2013–2014 season of Magnificat, in which Warren Stewart’s ensemble joined forces with the brass musicians of The Whole Noyse. The title of the program was A Venetian Christmas Mass, and it presented the recreation of the entire service for the third Mass on Christmas Day as it might have been celebrated at St. Mark’s Basilica in the middle of the seventeenth century. All of the composed music for this occasion was by Giovanni Gabrieli, who served as principal organist at St. Mark’s from 1585 until his death in 1612, and Claudio Monteverdi, who became maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in 1613 and held that position until his death in 1643.

Four of the five sections of the Ordo Missae (the “Ordinary” of the Mass) were sung in settings by Monteverdi. These were as follows:

  1. Gloria: in seven parts composed in 1640
  2. Credo: in four parts composed in 1641
  3. Sanctus: in twelve parts composed in 1622
  4. Agnus Dei: in six parts for “misère nobis” and in seven parts for “dona nobis pacem” composed in 1610

The three sections of the opening “Kyrie” (“Kyrie eleison,” “Christe eleison,” and “Kyrie eleison”) were composed by Gabrieli in 1615 for five, eight, and twelve voices, respectively. For this particular portion, the multiple voices were shared between vocalists and instrumentalists, while in the Monteverdi settings the instruments accompanied the multiple vocal lines.

There were also musical substitutions (“in loco”) for other portions of the celebration. Instrumental canzonas in eight parts by Gabrieli substituted for both the Gradual and the Communion. His fourteen-voice motet “Quem vidistis pastores” (whom have you seen, shepherds) substituted for the Offertory; and “Omnes gentes plaudit manibus” (all nations, clap your hands) substituted for the “Deo gratias” that concludes the celebration. Monteverdi’s 1622 motet “O bone Iesu” (O good Jesus) substituted for the Elevation. All remaining portions of the Mass were sung as plainchant. Solo chanting for the roles of the celebrant and the deacon were taken by bass Hugh Davies and tenor Christopher LeCluyse, respectively.

Before the performance began, SFEMS President John Phillips requested that the audience treat this as a religious service and refrain from applause. He observed that the music itself would let us know when applause would be suitable. He was referring to Monteverdi’s “Omnes gentes plaudit manibus” motet!

Taken as a whole the performance was a reminder of the extent to which seventeenth-century Catholicism, particularly in prosperous settings, such as Venice, involved a judicious combination of spirituality and spectacle. The many voices of seventeenth-century counterpoint could dazzle the ear with the same impact that the visual arts of that period (not to mention the St. Mark’s Basilica itself) could dazzle the eye. Furthermore, Stewart was well aware of the impact of spatial distribution on that “auditory dazzle.” Each of the compositions by Gabrieli and Monteverdi was assigned its own spatial configuration of performers, each chosen to enhance awareness of the intricate interplay of all the separate parts. While this involved a generous amount of “musical chairs” on the altar, all rearrangements were handled swiftly and efficiently, so as not to interfere with the overall flow of the service.

One might cite the irony of performing Roman rite in a Lutheran church, particularly since much of the music being performed was composed while the Thirty Years’ War was raging. In that respect, however, the music takes precedence over any religious connotations. San Francisco’s St. Mark’s (like the Basilica in Venice) is a space that offers acoustics that are highly conducive to both performers and listeners. There are few spaces in which the level of complexity that Gabrieli could conceive can strike the ear with such clarity. The administrators of the church have done a great service to a large number of San Francisco performing arts organizations, and yesterday that service was repaid with an outstanding performance of some of the most impressive accomplishments in music history achieved in the name of a sincerely solemn act of faith.

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