Washington Classical Review » Blog Archive » The Thirteen opens the season movingly with Monteverdi’s epic ‘Vespers’

Matthew Robertson directed The Thirteen in Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 Friday evening at the chapel of the Episcopal High School of Alexandria. Photo: Stan Engebretson

The Thirteen opened its season in Alexandria on Friday evening with a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s monumental Vespers of 1610, led by founder Matthew Robertson.

Monteverdi’s work is the subject of endless musicological debate over appropriate forces, appropriate keys for various movements, and even whether the pieces collected in the 1610 publication, – a demonstration of Monteverdi’s skills as he was looking for a new date – were even intended for performance as a single work.

Intentionally or not, the pieces form a cohesive whole in modern performance. Beginning with a series of psalms common to feasts dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Monteverdi develops material for different ensemble configurations on the simple tones that would have guided the recitation of the psalms in a service, interspersed with expressive “concerto” movements for voice. soloists. Additional movements, including the Marian hymn Ave maris stelle, are followed by a setting of the Magnificat which would have closed the Vespers service.

Monteverdi fills this structure with a dazzling puzzle box of early Baroque invention that repeatedly surpasses itself with new ideas and effects. A recurring trope is the Renaissance and Baroque interest in the juxtaposition of contrasting forces. The Vespers offer an infinite set of variations on this idea, from arrangements for double choir, to small ensembles in different registers, to “echo” effects often accompanied by separation in space. In the richness of form and creativity, the Vespers is a unique work in the surviving repertoire of the period, likely to appeal even to listeners who tend to shy away from composers prior to JS Bach.

Calling a total of 10 voice lines, the Vespers are sometimes performed with a traditional choir, but the performance here, performed at the Episcopal High School chapel, featured one voice per part. While this approach may sacrifice some definition in the heavier choral writing that can be accomplished with massive forces, it also provides opportunities for greater intimacy with solo singers.

The Thirteen deftly adapted to their dual rules as soloists and choir members, alternating between bloody operatic vocals and well-blended ensemble singing as needed.

The balances between the forces gathered at the start of the work took some time to adjust, the smaller vocal contingents being overwhelmed by the whole group in the opening “Deus in adjutorium” (with part of the Monteverdi marching band material The Orfeo of 1607) and “Dixit Dominus”.

But the following movements featured a well-integrated and seamless combination of singers and instrumentalists. This allowed many finely crafted details to come to the fore, from the floating high voices arranged against rapid figurative writing for the men in the ‘Laudate, pueri’, to the cascading figures swapped in the ‘Laetatus sum’, and the singing in a small group in the heartbreaking “Et misericordia” section of the Magnificat. The combined group has also demonstrated its ability to produce a full, sumptuous sound when called upon, such as in moments like the majestic opening and closing stanzas of “Ave maris Stella”.

The “concerto” numbers highlighted the strong contributions of individual members of The Thirteen. Michele Kennedy delivered the setting for “Nigra sum et Formosa” from Song of Songs, her nimble soprano capturing the song’s playfulness and making a strong impression in the ascending figures on the words “Surge, amica mea”. Soprano Molly Quinn and mezzo Katelyn Jackson have teamed up to deliver exquisitely weaved lines for another setting of Song of Songs, “Pulchra es, amica Mei.” In the unique “Duo Seraphim” movement, tenors Oliver Mercer, Aaron Sheehan and Stephen Soph brilliantly performed the opening material for the ornate duet when the Seraphim call out to one another, as well as in the close suspensions illustrating the trinity.

The instrumentalists of The Thirteen, complemented here by members of the Dark Horse Consort on sackbuts (a softer period trombone) and recorders, provided rich and varied support for the singers.

Yet the Vespers are almost as much a showcase for individual instrumentalists, who are showcased in various ways in tandem and apart from vocal music. The winds stood out in notable passages like the recorder and cornetto section in the hymn “Ave maris stella”, and the lovely cornetto duet (played by Alexandra Opsahl and Kiri Tollaksen) in the “Deposuit Potentes” section of the Magnificat. Note also the two theorbos (a kind of giant lute) played by John Lenti and Billy Simms, which provided sensitive accompaniment in many solo pieces.

The highlight for the group, however, is the “Sonata sopra sancta Maria”, mostly an instrumental movement punctuated by repeated vocal chants. It is a remarkable composition, featuring virtuoso displays by the players in a procession of different measures and configurations. Led by the wonderfully expressive violin playing of Adriane Post and Carrie Krause, the instrumentalists of Les Treize offered an exhilarating combination of precision and spontaneity in the hairpin turns of the movement.

The Vespers calling for a wide variety of effects and Matthew Robertson’s conducting was well suited to these changing moods, demonstrating a sure hand in both the driving impulse of ‘Nisi Dominus’ and the swinging exuberance of ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ . Thoughtfully deployed dynamics (surely another musicological minefield) added interest to moves like the “Ave Maria Stella” setting, but could have helped add more variation in places like the “Dixit Dominus “. The deliberate manipulation of the final chorus ‘Sicut erat in principio’ gave a deep sense of closure to the work.

The published Vespers do not include short antiphons between each section that would have been appropriate for the relevant feast day, allowing modern performers another choice in how they present the work. The antiphon lines on display selected here were sung with impeccable clarity and impeccable unison sound by female voices from the Washington Children’s Choir, led by Artistic Director Margaret Nomura Clark.

The program will be repeated Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at St. Peter’s Capitol and Sunday at 5 p.m. at Bradley Hills Church in Bethesda. thethirteenchoir.org

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