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In performance: 1610 Vespers

Web-only review:

Folger celebrates a Monteverdi anniversary
by Charles T. Downey

On Saturday night the Folger Consort celebrated the 400th anniversary of the 1610 publication of Claudio Monteverdi's "Mass and Vespers for the Most Holy Virgin," with a performance of the Vespers portion at Washington National Cathedral. Monteverdi brought together pieces composed at different times and in every conceivable combination and style to form an encyclopedic work. Even the foremost authority on the piece, Jeffrey G. Kurtzman, has admitted that there is no one "authentic" performance: It was meant to have many possible realizations.
(read more after the jump)

This one used historical instruments, heard at their strongest as an ensemble in the sprightly "Sonata sopra Sancta Maria," especially the brilliant cornetto playing of Mack Ramsey and Kiri Tollaksen. The cathedral's crossing vibrated with the sound of all 14 players in an instrumental canzona by Giovanni Gabrieli, inserted into the work before the concluding "Magnificat" (the one for seven voices with instruments, not the six-voice alternate usually omitted in performance). In lieu of a conductor, lead violinist Julie Andrijeski and organist Webb Wiggins got a workout in knee bending and head bobbing to keep the ensemble together.

Having a conductor would have provided a central authority to address persistent balance issues among the 10 vocal soloists, all singing one to a part. Tenor Lawrence Reppert stood out of the ensemble like a sore thumb, with a braying, nasal sound and Germanic pronunciation of Latin. By contrast, the polished, lovely tone of tenor Aaron Sheehan, as the echo in "Audi coelum," outshone the rougher Robert Petillo on the principal part. Soprano Jolle Greenleaf, who replaced the ailing Ann Monoyios, sang with a simple, clear and flexible sound, taking the listener to flight with her at the end of the demanding "Pulchra es."

-- Charles T. Downey

Note: As mentioned in a previous post, the early-music ensemble Artek will also perform the 1610 Vespers at the National Gallery on January 17th.

By Anne Midgette  |  January 11, 2010; 6:15 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Apparently the reviewer was sitting in the first few rows of the Cathedral, and missed the most significant aspect of the performance: the singers wore body mics, and the performance was broadcast to the rest of the building on the public address system, so loudly that few could hear anything "live." (This listener tried three locations in vain.) Perhaps totally amplified sound was better than the alternative: unlike at Wolf Trap, this unsophisticated system has no delay, so the amplified sound arrived at listeners' ears before the "live" sound. It would have resulted in dissonances beyond Monteverdi's comprehension to listen both amplified and "live."

Posted by: CharlieCerf | January 11, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Yes, I was seated very close, and I wondered about the effect further down the nave. I have heard complaints in previous years about the sound in that space anywhere but close to the performers. Thanks for sharing your opinion.

Posted by: Charles_D | January 11, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

The National Cathedral does indeed have an amplification system, but body mics were not used; there were mics placed in front of the singers on either side of the organ. I'm sorry the amplification was too extreme; but it provided clarity of the music and text which is not possible farther from the crossing. I hope you found some pleasure in the performance; we performers surely did.

Posted by: webbwiggins | January 12, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

I was remiss perhaps in not saying that I did enjoy the performance--eventually. It took about 30 minutes to adjust to the realization that I was hearing a non-live performance and to get over my anger at having paid $30 for the equivalent of a "lawn seat" at Wolf Trap without having been informed in advance. To me it was like attending a concert billed as "the Bach Magnificat" and hearing the C P E Bach Magnificat: also nice, but definitely different, and the audience is justified in feeling misled.

I admit that without amplification there would have been no clarity. Acoustically, the two Cathedrals and the Shrine are the worst venues in Washington for most music. But these pieces were, I thought, written for cathedral, and I was prepared to listen to the echoes. I imagine that most audience members were unlikely to be as familiar with the pieces as I, but they still deserved to be told in advance about the amplification.

Posted by: CharlieCerf | January 13, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

The reviewer mentioned the "brilliant cornetto playing of Mack Ramsey and Kiri Tollaksen". How could he forget to mention Michael Collver who was playing the first cornetto part?

Posted by: solea781 | January 14, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

A regrettable oversight, I agree, since he was the one who was really spectacular. The program did not list players by instrument but in alphabetical order or put the players by first, second, etc. Michael, please accept my apologies!

Posted by: Charles_D | January 15, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

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