Glover leads a memorable Monteverdi “Vespers” with Music of the Baroque

By Lawrence Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
April 02, 2016

We don’t know what the occasion was for Claudio Monteverdi writing his Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, what most of the scoring was like or even where or when it was first performed.

Yet this epic work serves as a kind of high-suspension bridge between the straitened Late Renaissance church style and the flowering of more expressive religious music that would culminate in Bach’s Passions.

Jane Glover led Music of the Baroque in a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers Friday night at St. Michael’s Church in Old Town. And with the ingenuity of the presentation as well as the highly polished and responsive performance, one could hardly imagine finer advocacy for this remarkable work.

The Vespers are set on a massive scale, spanning 90 minutes and 24 sections, scored for seven soloists, large double chorus and chamber orchestra. Even compared with Bach, Monteverdi’s score is astounding in its fecund and hypersensitive response to the Christian texts.

MOB usually performs its chosen repertory on “modern” instruments but Glover wisely elected to present this 1610 work with a full period ensemble. Much of the pleasure of this performance was in the myriad hues, tang and timbral combinations—the astringent bite and virtuosity of the excellent first violinist Leah Gale Nelson, the woody recorders, imposing theorbo and mellow cornettos and sackbuts.

The team of vocal soloists was consistently inspired. Yulia Van Doren’s pure, treble-like timbre was heard to fine effect in the “Dixit Dominus” in tandem with the similarly bell-toned soprano Agnes Zsigovics, as well as the madrigal-like lines of the “Suscepit Israel.”

Displaying an evenly produced tenor throughout a wide vocal range, Thomas Cooley floated a sweet-toned “Nigra sum” and blended effectively with his fellow tenors Colin Ainsworth and Patrick Muehleise in the “Duo Seraphim.” Todd von Felker and Kevin Keys anchored the bass end effectively.

Under the direction of chorus master William Jon Gray the MOB ensemble sang with tonal refinement, technical security and consistent expression to the text.

There were fleeting moments when the chorus’s quieter singing was subsumed by the orchestra, but for the most part, Glover’s direction was exemplary. MOB’s music director underlined the variety of the music, ingeniously highlighting the call and response sections with antiphonally placed voices, and brought spirited engagement to this fascinating and challenging score.