Apollo’s Fire strikes sparks with exuberant take on Monteverdi “Vespers”

Mon Oct 17, 2022 at 12:54 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jeannette Sorrell led Apollo’s Fire in Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 Sunday afternoon at Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston. Photo: Sean Keenan

It’s been a very good autumn in Chicago for Baroque and before music.

Last month Music of the Baroque opened its season with a sterling performance of Handel’s oratorio Jephtha. Haymarket Opera followed a few days later with a worthy production of Monteverdi’s epic L’incoronazione di Poppea.

On Sunday Apollo’s Fire did their part for Monteverdi with an exuberant performance of the composer’s 1610 Vespers. Enhanced by some terrific solo singing, and directed by Jeannette Sorrell with characteristic vitality and ebullience, the performance at Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston launched the second Chicago season for the Cleveland-based Baroque ensemble in style.

Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin is one of the rare creations in which one can experience music history evolving in real time. The 90-minute work moves from the High Renaissance of its antiphons and dancey orchestral interludes to the vocal and instrumental virtuosity of the Baroque, with Monteverdi’s freely expressive vocal writing anticipating Bach’s Passions to come.

The authenticist school is likely correct that the Vespers was originally performed one to a part (and has been recorded that way by a generation of historically minded conductors including Andrew Parrott and others). But scholarly accuracy apart, that kind of forensically minimalist approach can often make for an ascetic and, frankly, rather dry listening experience over the extended duration.

In her program note, Sorrell makes a valid historical case that justified the larger forces she employs in her edition of the work (19 singers and a 17-instrument chamber orchestra). 

But, more crucially, the artistic director made a wholly convincing musical argument in the Apollo performance. The massed forces combined for resounding impact in the lively acoustic, yet the voices and orchestra were dexterously balanced by Sorrell throughout. The varied colors of Apollo’s period cornettos, recorders and theorbos provided neat variety and timbral contrasts. 

At times in those big ensemble passages—especially in the early going—one sometimes wanted more dynamic contrast and nuance. But the chorus sang with resplendent tone and the performance gained in emotional depth as it unfolded.

The polish and dedication of Sorrell and the soloists—vocal and instrumental—was unassailable. As the performance reached its peak with the massive concluding Magnificat, Sorrell likewise accelerated the quick stage changeups with solo singers placed in the high pulpit and instrumental soloists standing up. Theatrical excess was largely avoided, though concertmaster Alan Choo’s Nigel Kennedy-esque gyrations in his violin solos came close.

Tenor Jacob Perry was among the vocal soloists in Monteverdi’s Vespers. Photo: Sean Keenan

As characterful as the contributions were from the orchestra, as an ensemble and individually, it was the wondrous vocalism by an array of top-flight singers that made this a Vespers performance of distinction. In addition to bringing monastic gravitas to the cantorial Antiphons and Oratios, the singers shone in their solo moments.

Tenor Jacob Perry was first among equals. The strength of his voice in the opening solo instantly made one sit up straight (and forget about seating snafus and potential parking tickets). Perry offered an ideal blend of power and tonal sweetness in “Nigra Sum” and the “Duo Seraphim” (fellow tenors Steven Caldicott Wilson and Haitham Haider uncannily echoing Perry’s vibrato exactly in the latter).

Soprano Erica Schuller, who sang the title role in Haymarket’s Poppea, made a virtual operatic love scene out of “Pulchra Es” singing radiantly and with immaculate tone and expressive dedication to sister soprano Molly Netter. Other noteworthy solo moments came with Wilson’s lovely rendition of  “Audi Coelum” and Andrea Walker’s pure-toned rendering of “Sancta Maria”

This was the fifth performance of this massive work by Apollo’s Fire in little over a week (the first four in Ohio). Yet under Sorrell’s attentive and engaging leadership, there was not the slightest hint of routine, all involved tackling the score with admirable polish and gusto.

Apollo’s Fire will perform Handel’s Messiah 7:30 p.m. December 9 at First Presbyterian Church in Evanston. apollosfire.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Apollo’s Fire strikes sparks with exuberant take on Monteverdi “Vespers””

  1. Posted Oct 18, 2022 at 7:40 am by Charles Rhodes

    Jacob Perry is a very special tenor. The second tenor was in no way up to the task the music required. His passagework was not clean, and he was often late and behind.

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