Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sacred music can dance

Claudio Monteverdi, as the story goes, conceived and wrote the Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610 Vespers) as a musical resume. His relationship with his employer at the time, the Gonzaga family of Mantua, was going sour. The areas around Mantua were fighting off pestilence. And, like all good parents, he was worried about having enough money to educate his sons. The Vespers, Monteverdi thought, would show potential employers what he was capable of composing and help pave the way for a new job.

Monteverdi’s “resume” didn’t immediately help him get out of Mantua. It wasn’t until 1613 when he was appointed conductor of San Marco in Venice. Sadly, the Vespers all but disappeared until the mid-1930’s when Nadia Boulanger and others in her circle began extolling the work’s virtues.

In Seattle, only George Shangrow, Orchestra Seattle and the Seattle Chamber Singers (OSSCS)  have regularly performed the Vespers. Monday’s performance of the Monteverdi Vespers was the first time the piece had been performed in Seattle since 1999. Shangrow’s ensemble has distinguished itself locally as interpreters of a wide repertoire of classical music ranging from Renaissance to Contemporary. Shangrow puts on exquisite Messiah and Monday’s performance of the 1610 Vespers will be followed in January by Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

It is fitting that Shangrow would choose Monteverdi's Vespers to precede Britten's War Requiem.  Monteverdi, like Britten straddled different compositional styles and as a result each developed an original language.  The Vespers and the Requiem are both choral and orchestral masterpieces, set against the back drop of more traditional forms. 

The myriad of styles and techniques used in the Vespers can stump the best conductors and orchestras. Monteverdi employs practically every type of music and device available at the time.  Coming up with a coherent performance can prove difficult.

Fortunately, Shangrow's ensemble was perfectly at ease with the Vespers.  OSSCS’s facility with a variety of styles, old and new, paid off.  From the glorious Introduction with its trumpet fanfares to the humble, concluding antiphon, the playing and singing was unswerving. Each section, from the soloists to the orchestra, found ways to leave their mark. 

While there is much to love in the Vespers, I was especially moved by the antiphons. Growing up in eastern Iowa, I would occasionally venture to the Trappist monastery in Dubuque, Iowa. The chanting of the monks always touched my soul. The Seattle Chamber Singers brought me back to those sparse, monastic moments. Each word was heavenly. The words were reverent but so was the performance. 

Other parts, though not as spiritually moving, were still pleasing and performed expertly. The Dixit Dominus danced. Shangrow’s tempo underscored the rhythmic qualities of the work.  Also, his focus on the little things added immeasurable depth to the music.  How words sound and phrases are carried mattered.  Under Shangrow, a simple Amen conveyed the emotional core of the work.   

The Hymnus showcased Orchestra Seattle’s talented strings. Catherine Haight and Carrie Henneman Shaw were strong, particularly in the Laudate pueri Dominum. The Magnificat was stunning. The Magnificat anima mea Dominum was sung beautifully. The Sancta Maria was riveting; Shangrow achieved a pleasing balance between the instrumental and vocal forces.  In general, movements like the Sancta Maria, which can come across as masses of incoherent sound in recordings were clear.  The contrasts Monteverdi strived for were apparent and for the first time, sounded as revolutionary to me as they must have when the work was premiered.   

If there was a flaw last night, it was the acoustics of the First Free Methodist Church. At times, the sound seemed to disappear. I noticed this most with the tenor soloists. At times I strained to comprehend what was being sung. I could see their lips enunciating words and syllables, but the sound didn’t make its way back to me.  For different movements, as the tenors and baritones were able to move closer to the center of the stage, they became easier to hear.  

Seattle’s classical music scene is a better place because of George Shangrow, Orchestra Seattle and Seattle Chamber Singers. Without OSSCS and Shangrow there is no guarantee the 1610 Vespers or even the upcoming War Requiem would find a musical voice in Seattle. OSSCS and Shangrow have a knack for taking on challenging pieces of music which don't always find their way onto the concert stage. Shangrow and his ensembles demonstrated this talent with a wonderful performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers.

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