Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Paul Flight began the 2013–2014 of his California Bach Society by leading the first of three performances of the Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610 (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin, 1610) by Claudio Monteverdi. As I observed in my preview article, this was probably an “audition piece” that Monteverdi composed when he was seeking a post in Venice. This was a major undertaking, since, in the seventeenth century, the Vespers service had an elaborate structure.
Its core was the singing of five psalms, each concluding with a doxology. The psalms are followed by a singing of the Magnificat canticle and preceded by an invocation chant on the psalm verse (and doxology) “Deus, in adiutorium meum intende. Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen. Alleluia.” (O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Alleluia.) Monteverdi separated the psalm settings with “Concerto” settings of other Biblical texts, scored for one or more solo voices. There is also an instrumental sonata performed against the chanting of “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis” (Holy Mary, pray for us), followed by a setting of the “Ave maris stella” (hail, star of the sea) hymn. Both of these movement follow the final psalm and precede the Magnificat setting.
The performance of all of this material makes for a full evening’s concert. Flight structured the performance with an intermission before the penultimate psalm setting. This allowed him to rearrange the chorus from a four-part organization to the antiphonal division into two four-part choirs. This introduced a spatial element for the second half of the evening that had been absent from the first, which was most evident in the setting of Psalm 127 (“Nisi Dominus”).
Instrumental resources were modest. There were three violins (Kati Kyme, Shira Kammen, and Nalini Ghuman), violist Herbert Myers doubled on curtal (a predecessor of the bassoon), and the continuo was taken by Farley Pearce on cello, along with Margaret Radu on gamba for a few movements. (Radu spent the rest of her time in the soprano section.) Additional continuo was provided by Howard Kadis on archlute and Esther Archer on organ. The most prominent instruments, however, were two cornetti (Kiri Tollaksen and Stephen Escher) and three sackbuts (Becca Burrington, Mack Ramsey, and Richard van Hessel). Several performers also doubled on different sizes of recorders.
All this made for a very impressive ensemble sound that nicely filled the relatively modest space of St. Mark’s. Given the circumstances under which the music was composed, one can imagine that Monteverdi had in mind the vaster space of “another” St. Mark’s, the landmark basilica in Venice. Such a venue would have allowed the many different resources to be physically separated, creating an even more spatial experience than that established by Flight’s double-choir arrangement. However, even without those spatial extremes, Flight’s musicians filled the space with the sort of grand sound that may well have “sealed the deal” of Monteverdi’s eventual appointment as maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s Basilica.
The major weakness in last night’s performance came with the solo vocal work. While, for the most part, there was a sure sense of pitch, the solo sonorities themselves tended to sound weak. This created a sense of uncertainty, however well prepared the singers may have been. Nevertheless, since the vocal solos constitute a relatively modest portion of the overall score, the impressions left by the far more impressive sound of the full ensemble were far more lasting.