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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 26, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 43
Early church music made dramatic
Arts & Entertainment
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Early church music made dramatic

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

MONTEVERDI: VESPERS
PACIFIC MUSICWORKS
October 20


What an instructive contrast there was between two early music programs on consecutive Saturdays at St. James Cathedral! A week earlier we heard Musica Ficta from Valencia, Spain, woo our ears and hearts with the sublime, sensual beauty of gorgeous harmonies and perfect blends of seductive sounds carried on Latin words. It was all tidy and powerful in its own way.

In stark contrast, Monteverdi assaulted St. James' acoustic this week with sounds that made mockery of tidiness, throwing so many sounds at once against those stone walls that at first one could hardly make sense of it all. Instead of relatively slow, flowing chords, we heard loud clashes, as fast runs bounced against their own reverberations, leaving the ear frustrated in trying to sort it all out. Frustrated, that is, until one realized that this mountain of confused noises was using the cathedral acoustic for dramatic effect. In fact, the focus was no longer just beautiful sounds - it was drama. Words were no longer mere carriers of lovely tones - they had taken over, a kind of musical coup, if you will, making their own dramatic meaning the center of attention. We had moved from smooth sensual seduction to opera.

EMOTIONAL INTENSITY
And opera is messy. Emotions are not tidy. Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 is daring beyond imagination in its focus on the meanings of words. Seattle native Stephen Stubbs showed his attention to the emotional intensity of Monteverdi's setting, drawing great contrasts in dynamics as well as expressive force behind the delivery of words. The excellent singers were animated and emotionally involved with every syllable. Tenor Charles Daniels set the tone with his first notes, imploring God to deliver him with the intensity of someone about to be killed.

Vocal forces consisted of two sopranos, one male alto, four tenors, one baritone, and one bass-baritone. Not one of them was weak. Outstanding, besides the world-renowned Daniels, were bass-baritone Douglas Williams and tenor Jason McStoots, whose voice had an uncommon sweetness and purity, especially appropriate to his solo as an echo (from the elevated, rear organ loft) of the two seraphim. This duet was one of the many lovely moments that contrasted well against the more dramatic outbursts. (Some may wonder at the absence of a choir such as used in recordings of an earlier time. Modern scholarship has revealed that large choruses were not used in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, the 'chorus' here was the group of soloists singing one-to-a-part. The acoustic of St. James supported their sound so fully that they often sounded like a much larger group.)

AUTHENTIC INSTRUMENTS
Instrumental forces consisted of two violins, two violas, one small organ, one harp, a chitarrone (played by Stephen Stubbs), one violoncello, a double bass, two cornettos, and three sackbuts. The chitarrone is a large lute-like instrument with a long neck, making it about six feet in length. Cornettos look in size and shape like recorders, but they sound much more like trumpets. And the sackbut (love that word!) is a precursor of the trombone and looks it. Together they made a wonderful noise. Often, of course, less than the whole body of players was used, and sometimes the singers sang with little or no accompaniment. Suffice to say there was plenty of variety, both in the forces employed and in the emotional nature of the text and music.

Of course this performance was not really an opera, since it lacked staging, costumes, and so forth. But the focus on the emotional content of the text made it truly 'operatic' and full of vocal writing that characterizes what became opera. I wonder how much Monteverdi sensed of the art form he was, in a sense, creating. This Vespers whipped up a lot of excitement. Since this was the second time in two years that Stubbs and his forces have presented this work at St. James, one wonders if it is to become a Messiah-like tradition. We can hope so.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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