Monteverdi’s Vespers still inspiring after 400 years
Harris Theater for Music and Dance
Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine
Callipygian Players, Martin Davids (director), with Bella Voce, Andrew Lewis (conductor)
Bella Voce & Callipygian Players (© Magda Krance)
Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (or as the composition is more informally known, the Vespers of 1610) was easily the most influential piece of liturgical music before those of Bach, and was also historically pivotal in that it rather bridged the conceptual distance between church music of the Renaissance to the more dramatically emotional Baroque. Modern performances of the Vespers require a few judgment calls on the part of the conductor, as Monteverdi never set the antiphons which would have properly preceded each of the psalms and concerti created for the work; nor did he provide specific instrumentation beyond the music composed for violin and cornetto. As such, there can be a tendency to present the Vespers in a rather academic fashion, and drown what was in its time an often startling level of straightforward emotionality inherent the piece with well-intended reverence. Chicago’s fine period instrument ensemble the Callipygian Players, here joining forces with the delectable 21-voice Bella Voce singers, graced a near-capacity audience at Chicago’s Harris Theatre with a traversal of this exquisite work that was as notable for its affective re-imagining of the material as for its polish of musicianship.
The piece was reportedly suggested to Bella Voce’s director, conductor Andrew Lewis, by ensemble member Oliver Camacho, whose love for this music was clearly apparent in his stirring delivery of the Audi coelum. Camacho’s tenor was certainly attractive in of itself; what ultimately distinguished the interlude was his intelligent connection with the text and his sensitive expressive resonation within the idiom. Mr. Camacho was effectively complimented here by Douglas Kelner as the echoing spirit. Both gentlemen were joined by Micah Dingler for a lovely account of the Duo Seraphim, Dingler’s tenor more purely floated, Camacho’s more viscerally aggressive in his approach to the ornamental trillos scattered throughout the concerto. As for the feminine contingent, Kirsten Hedegaard and Julia Davids achieved a melting blend for the Pulchra es, and Christine Kelner made a charming thing of the soprano sonata Sancta Maria.
Impressive as the soloists were the Vespers are of course a group effort, and Bella Voce did not disappoint with their exceptional handling of Monteverdi’s complex choral writing, the ensemble breaking down into various mellifluous sub-choirs as required. The melismas of the Laudate pueri were dispatched with particular vigor and grace.
The Callipygian Players were an absolute delight. There was a brass blip or two, but the overall sound was pungent, and bursting with character. Violin virtuosi Rachel Barton Pine and ensemble Director Martin Davids dispatched the string solos gloriously. All forces came together trenchantly for an excellent account of the Magnificat.
Lewis addressed the issue of the antiphons by simply eliminating them – a questionable move for church performance perhaps, but entirely appropriate in a secular setting, and the decision made for a most compact and musically propulsive experience. Although the conductor’s customary informative patter was trimmed to a minimum given the nature of the piece, he straddled his roles of musician and educator with his customary ease and charm.
Bella Voce can usually be counted on to think outside the box in terms of repertoire, and their standard evenings of acappella choral work always field some interesting surprises. That said, the partnership with Callipygian for this Monteverdi evening proved to be a particularly happy one, and one hopes to see further such collaborations in the future.
The Callipygian Players
Mark Thomas Ketterson