Music of Baroque, Glover clear 4 centuries of dust from Monteverdi's 'Vespers'

By John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
April 02, 2016

Claudio Monteverdi's "Vespers of the Blessed Virgin" (1610) has been a virtual signature piece for Music of the Baroque, beginning in 1976 when the chorus and orchestra gave this sacred masterpiece of the early Baroque era its Chicago professional premiere. But until the group's exultant performance Friday night at St. Michael Catholic Church on Chicago's North Side, the score had not figured in the group's repertory for more than two decades. This also turned out to be the first Monteverdi "Vespers" that music director Jane Glover had ever conducted in Chicago.

We know that the Italian composer wrote his inspired sequence of motets, hymns, psalm settings and concluding Magnificat to impress potential patrons, make money and perhaps land a job at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, which he eventually did. His "Vespers" setting transforms austere plainchant into florid vocal solos, wondrous choruses, a virtuosic instrumental sonata and much more. No single work composed for the church before J.S. Bach's Passions can boast so rich and varied a musical canvas.

Every conductor who undertakes the "Vespers" is faced with a daunting host of editorial decisions. But since Glover is as knowledgeable a Baroque scholar as she is a skilled Baroque interpreter, her musical choices proved to be a smart and convincing mixture of historical authenticity and modern practicality, each carefully tailored to the forces at hand and the performance space.

Her 26 choral singers and seven vocal soloists, arrayed in varying configurations across the wide chancel, were well-balanced against a period ensemble of 17 instrumentalists. In the magnificent church interior, the rounded yet luminous sound had plenty of room in which to expand. If the resonant acoustics made it difficult to achieve absolutely precise ensemble in certain quick antiphonal exchanges, this problem appeared to sort itself out later in the 90-minute performance.

Glover surrounded herself with a strong team of singers and instrumentalists and clearly had rehearsed them well. (The choral preparation was done by director William Jon Gray.) Friday's spirited performance left this listener astonished anew by the infinite variety of Monteverdi's music. What other composer of that era could have set intimate song and sacred chant alongside music of such unalloyed sensuality, all in tribute to the Virgin Mary?

Judicious pacing allowed the choral voices to blend with and answer each other with firm tone, deft rhythm and flexible phrasing. Their expressive singing, and that of the soloists, gave the audience a vivid sense of the Latin text as a living language. Duo violinists Leah Gale Nelson and Martin Davids intertwined nicely in their florid obbligato parts, heading an instrumental ensemble that included a splendid continuo group (Craig Trompeter, cello; Stephen Alltop, organ; and Daniel Swenberg, theorbo). Recorders, cornettos and sackbuts (antique trombones) lent their distinctive nasal timbres to the sound picture.

The vocal soloists all were quite fine, especially tenors Thomas Cooley, Patrick Muhleise and Colin Ainsworth, and sopranos Yulia Van Doren and Agnes Zsigovics. Cooley, Music of the Baroque's artist-in-residence this season, sang with deep expressivity in the solo motet "Nigra sum" and in the "echo" exchanges with another singer stationed in the rear choir loft. The joining of all three tenor voices for the melismatic "Duo Seraphim" was beautifully achieved, as was the blend of the two sopranos in the unabashedly sensuous "Pulchra es."