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In performance: ARTEK and the 1610 Vespers

Web-only review:

High and low notes in ARTEK and Piffaro’s performance of Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers’
by Charles T. Downey

In honor of the 400th anniversary of the publication of Claudio Monteverdi's "Vespers of the Blessed Virgin," the National Gallery of Art hosted a performance on Sunday night of most of the music now known as the "1610 Vespers." It was the second concert in as many weeks to feature this baroque masterpiece, but a capacity crowd filled the West Garden Court.

This was a higher-octane version than the Folger Consort's performance of the work at the Washington National Cathedral the previous weekend. The museum's venue is smaller, if no less echo-prone, and was filled by a larger instrumental ensemble of more than 20 players, a combination of the ARTEK and Piffaro bands. Lute, guitar, cittern, theorbo, lirone, harp, organ and harpsichord provided a myriad of colors, more lavish than strictly necessary, to the continuo harmonies. Among the soloists, standout playing came from cornettist Michael Collver and paired violinists Enrico Gatti and Vita Wallace.
(read more after the jump)

Four sackbuts and a magnificent contradulcian that buzzed and rattled on the bass line filled out the ensemble. All that amassed instrumental power sometimes overwhelmed the singers, mostly assigned one to a part except, wisely, on many of the psalm tones worked ingeniously by Monteverdi into complex textures. Liberal instrumental doubling of the vocal parts, intended to alleviate this inequity, in fact contributed to it.

Unlike in the Folger Consort version, here one missed a truly clarion soprano presence that Rosa Lamoreaux, although lovely when paired with mezzo-soprano Barbara Hollinshead in the duet "Pulchra es," could not produce. On the other hand, tenor Matthew Smith, whose voice was squandered in the ensemble by the Folger Consort, gave a clear, vibrant rendition of "Nigra sum" and was seconded ably by tenor Philip Anderson in "Duo seraphim."

-- Charles T. Downey

By Anne Midgette  |  January 19, 2010; 5:04 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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I love this work and have heard at least a dozen performances over the years For me, this was the very best. I thought that the deployment of forces by director Gwendolyn Toth (sadly, unmentioned by Mr. Downey) was extraordinarily inventive and effective. Where I was setting there was almost always a fine balance between vocalists and instrumentalists. It is a real shame that this superb concert did not merit the National Gallery a print review.

Posted by: mjg-law | January 19, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

The performance of Monteverdi's Vespers at the National Gallery deserved more press! It was spellbinding and seldom could be surpassed in the Early Music or Classical Music environs of North America, or further afield. Director Gwendolyn Toth clearly possesses remarkable skills as conductor, director, interpretor, and performer. Seldom can one person pull together such a diverse, accomplished, and clearly remarkable group of instrumentalists and vocalists. The singing and instrumental playing was nuanced yet unified with the performers adding their personal skills and refinement to the musical score within a greater whole. Phrasing and gestures were clear, interesting and organic. Despite an extremely disparate sequence of individual movements provided by the composer, the performance had cohesion, a clear sense of flow and remarkably, (with so many different and unique instruments) stayed in tune and held the interest of an audience with a very wide age span, all sitting on uncomfortable chairs in an almost otherworldly setting of the Gallery's garden rotunda. Aside from a European church with gilded walls laden with art of the period (or, as the previous week's performance, a cathedral), there was little about this production to improve upon. Ms. Toth deserves a great deal of credit and kudos for her attention to detail and clear love of the music, conveyed to all. As my friend and I silently slipped into the misty street scene afterwards we were speechless and slightly in awe of what we had experienced. There was no where we would rather have spent the evening.

Posted by: Oswald1 | January 21, 2010 8:19 AM | Report abuse

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