Go for Baroque: Singing Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610

I’ve come to realize that chorus concert days are sort of like track meets: it takes a lot of endurance, focus, and conservation of energy to get through a long afternoon and evening. We have a 3-hour afternoon rehearsal, an hour-ish break, and then the concert. Like track meets, it’s tricky to figure out how and when to eat on concert days. I usually have to leave the house around lunchtime, travel an hour or so to the venue, sing for a couple hours, take a short break, sing more, take a longer break, and perform. I’ve finally discovered that frequent ingestion of high-energy food is the key to keeping me going on concert day: nibbles of oatcakes and cheese, a peanut butter and banana sandwich, apples, even sports drink.

Anyway, all that goes on in the background of rehearsing and performing incredible music in gorgeous venues, as I was fortunate enough to do as part of the Crouch End Festival Chorus this weekend. We performed Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, accompanied by the period-instrument English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble and fronted by a fantastic group of soloists. The venue was also beautiful: 300-year-old St. John’s Smith Square, a large church just south of Westminster Abbey that is now used primarily as a music venue (not surprisingly, as the acoustics are wonderful).

Gosh, where to begin? Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 is a remarkable 90-minute piece, full of florid early Baroque runs, trills, and invitations for improvisation for the soloists and musicians. The chorus is split into two choirs for most of the piece, as the various movements demand up to 10 different vocal parts. Traditionally, the choir would have been all men and boys, but in today’s modern age the top 3-4 parts are sung by women. It’s also really meant for a chamber choir, with just a few voices per part, but our director (DT) decided to go for the challenge of getting 140 of us to sound like a small choir. Here’s the masterful John Eliot Gardiner leading his professional Monteverdi Choir in a performance of the Vespers:

Intonation and blend are key in a piece like this, which requires a pure sound and Italianate Latin vowels. Diction is tough to coordinate and execute well — especially Latin, as these Brits speak with so many diphthongs! — with so many singers. And the standards were high, as we were accompanied by the well-known English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, who could probably play the Vespers in their sleep! (side note: cornetts are really cool and the theorbo was likened to a “Renaissance banjo” by DT.) Not to mention the incredible soloists, all clearly trained in the unique early Baroque style, which requires so much vocal control to sing all those 16th and 32nd notes. Highlights include the two sopranos singing “Pulchra es” (24:15 in the above video) and the tenor duet/trio with baritone, “Duo seraphim” (36:24, above).

Although I may be biased, I think we pulled it off. Even if not, it was certainly challenging and great fun to sing. Despite the Vespers being a religious piece, DT kept emphasizing that, in fact, Monteverdi’s music is incredibly sensual and erotic (ever seen/listened to his operas? I can still remember seeing Oberlin Opera Theatre perform Poppea back in 2008 and being struck by the sensuality of the 17th-century music). I completely agree. Part of what I enjoyed about singing the Vespers of 1610 is the variety of moods and styles in the piece: in some sections we had to sound like a children’s choir, while in others we broadened our sound to that of a symphonic choir. It was a real treat to sing this 400-year-old piece of music and start to get inside its complexities. Well done all!

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8 thoughts on “Go for Baroque: Singing Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610

  1. Nick Jones says:

    Perhaps your Vespers, like the 2008 Oberlin Poppea, were post-modern? remember the exquisite final duet where the leads had to sing while people poured water over their heads??

    • taplatt says:

      I’d forgotten about that, but now that you think of it… Not sure ours were completely post-modern, given the period instruments, but doing it with such a large choir certainly was.

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