Bella Voce delivers engaging account of Monteverdi’s astonishing Vespers

Mon Mar 29, 2010 at 11:57 am

By Bryant Manning

Andrew Lewis

When an unconventional score like Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergin (1610) survives long enough to have its 400th birthday, it certainly hasn’t traveled through the centuries unscathed from the curious minds of musicologists and conductors. Since much early music wasn’t even revived for concertgoing audiences until the 20th century,  Monteverdi’s Vespers is in many ways new as it is old. (Strangely, performances of it abound all over the country, but are curiously lacking in Chicago during this landmark anniversary year.)

As Bella Voce music director Andrew Lewis commented between the Vespers’ penultimate and final sections Sunday night, there would be a few friendly tweaks to accommodate contemporary sensibilities. For one, Monteverdi’s high-clef scoring in a few settings is so expansive that it would be transposed downward to accommodate a more normal vocal range.

And the conductor emphasized that while the audience basks in Hyde Park’s augustly pious Rockefeller Chapel, this was still a secular concert: the ever complex plainchant, to which is more appropriate for a worshiping congregation, would not be sung between movements under Lewis’ direction.

Still, Bella Voce offered a highly engaging and authentic account of this “audition” score that Monteverdi may have written to angle his way into Rome. Joining the choristers for the first time were the The Callipygian Players, a unique period-instrument ensemble that performs on cornettos, sackbuts, a viola da gamba and a theorbo, among others. For the most part, they provided loving accompaniment for their singers and were buoyantly energetic in the ritornellos.

But Vespers is a vocal showpiece, and Bella Voce delivered in spades. It is astonishing to hear the degree of vocal range and expression in this almost two-hour work, from its myriad settings for solo, duo, and trio voices to the larger ensemble combinations. The ornate vocal flourishes and ornamentations were artfully sung, and the off-stage echoing provided an ethereal effect.

The Cantus duo in Pulchra es was practically Gaelic in its charm, beautifully sung by Kirsten Hedegaard and Julia Davids. Lindsey Adams and Micah Dingler were prominent and expressive soloists throughout, and Jason Moy’s understated, period organ stylishly embroidered all these angelic voices.

Director Martin Davids and Rachel Barton Pine expertly anchored the violins, although were undermined by messy string and brass sections, particularly in the clumsy Sancta Maria. The concluding, 13-part Magnificat was, however, magnificent, and each of these little psalm-songs were sung with the utmost care and panache.

It’s good that Bella Voce and the Players are performing this rich music in three very different locations, wrapping up their Vespers series tonight at the Harris Theater. This should be a considerable acoustical improvement over Rockefeller Chapel, where articulations are constantly muddied, the performers too remote, and the sound withers in the cathedral’s cavernous space.

Monteverdi’s Vespers will be performed 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater.

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