by Michael Caruso
Under the baton of its artistic director and conductor Matthew Glandorf, Choral Arts Philadelphia and the Bach Festival rounded out the old year and welcomed in the new with a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s groundbreaking “Vespro della Beata Vergine” (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin) of 1610. The concert, which took place Sunday afternoon, Dec, 31, in St. Clement’s Episcopal (Anglo-Catholic) Church in center city, drew an audience that packed its pews, numbering at least 500. Not even sub-freezing temperatures kept these music-lovers away.
“Vespers” is the name given the late afternoon liturgy of the hours regularly celebrated at cathedrals and monasteries throughout Europe prior to the Protestant Reformation. It continued being marked in those portions of the continent that remained Roman Catholic. The liturgy celebrated specifically for Mary, the Mother of Jesus, included the reading of six Psalms, two excerpts from the Song of Solomon, the traditional hymn “Ave maris stella” (Hail, star of the sea), and the “Magnificat” as found in the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke in the New Testament.
Anglicans the world over, including Episcopalians in the United States, know the “Magnificat” as the first major musical piece in Choral Evensong. The second half of that pair, the “Nunc Dimittis,” is found in the evening liturgy of the hours known as “Compline.” The two Roman Catholic offices of the Sarum Rite in England were first combined to form Evensong in the Church of England’s 1549 Book of Common Prayer, written by Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury.
Monteverdi composed his 1610 musical setting of Vespers as an “audition piece” for the post of music director at the Cathedral Basilica of San Marco in Venice. Designed in the Byzantine style of Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire, which stood until 1453, St. Mark’s is a replica of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, now called Istanbul in Turkey. The church was destroyed in 1205 when the armies of the Fourth Crusade sacked the city in response to their having failed to recapture Jerusalem from the Turks, even though the Byzantines were their allies.
The most important architectural aspect of the Basilica that pertains to music was the placement of antiphonal choirs in balconies situated on either side of the central aisle leading to the high altar within the sanctuary. As a result of this stylistic distinction, composers who worked at St. Mark’s, both choral and instrumental, regularly wrote works that employed imitative dialogues between the two choirs or echo effects within them. The “Vespers of 1610” offers these characteristics, as did the brass music similarly written for St. Mark’s by Andrea Gabrieli and his nephew, Giovanni.
Standing at the crossroads of the culmination of the Renaissance and the inauguration of the Baroque, Monteverdi occupies a unique place in music history. Listening to the “Vespers of 1610,” one hears the end of the polyphonic modal harmonies that reigned supreme from late in the Middle Ages through the 16th century careers of Giovanni da Palestrina and Tomas di Victoria.
One also hears the beginnings of the major/minor tonality that solidified under Vivaldi, Handel and Bach. Monteverdi employed a simpler style of text setting than had either Palestrina or Victoria. Many of the words were set syllabically. Interestingly, Bach’s choral music often seems to skip backward over Monteverdi to recall the polyphony of both of his Italian and Spanish predecessors.
Although St. Clement’s Church is a far cry from the size and scope of St. Mark’s Basilica, it does boast a touch of the visual splendor and the acoustical generosity of the Venetian Cathedral. Its Victorian Romanesque opulence and balanced resonance proved the perfect “look” and “sound” for Sunday afternoon’s concert.
Aided by nine vocal soloists (including soprano Rebecca Myers Hoke, who formerly lived in Chestnut Hill), the strings and continuo of the Philadelphia Bach Collegium and the brass players of the Dark Horse Consort, Glandorf and Choral Arts Philadelphia gave the Monteverdi a stellar performance. He set crisp yet unhurried tempi, established and maintained clear textures from both his choristers and instrumentalists, and gave his vocal soloists ample space to project interpretations that were stylistic and expressive.
Most notable of these were sopranos Hoke and Jessica Beebe (recently heard in Chestnut Hill with Piffaro) and tenors Michael Jones, James Reese and Nikolas Karageorgiou. Their singing was infused with intensely felt and expertly delineated word painting. Every now and then, overall ensemble and balance were a touch off, but Glandorf’s astute ear immediately righted the rare imbalance.
Matthew Glandorf will bring Choral Arts Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Bach Collegium to Chestnut Hill Friday, March 23, at 7 p.m. to celebrate the memory and legacy of Michael Korn, 1947-1991. Korn founded the Philadelphia Singers in 1972 and the Bach Festival of Philadelphia in 1976 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where the concert will take place. Korn also helped found Chorus America in 1977. The concert will feature music by Bach and Mendelssohn. For more information, visit www.choralarts.com.