This was a concert that went beyond the ordinary to the category of event. Four hundred years ago Claudio Monteverdi published Vespro della Beata Vergine, a Marian vesper service like none other. In fact it is often referred to as the Vespers of 1610. First of all, it is longer than the usual vesper service. It contains elements of the high renaissance of which Monteverdi was a master and elements that clearly spell out the direction the new style of composing, which would later be called Baroque, would take. It was the first sacred work he had composed in 28 years, and its precise purpose is not clearly known though it is conjectured that he wrote it as a part of his application audition for positions in Rome and Venice. He did become maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice in 1613.

The thirteen sections of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 include a fairly typical selection of Psalms, Antiphons, and Hymns, closing with a canticle of Mary and the Magnificat. Each section is treated differently in a manner designed to support and enhance the meaning of the text without losing focus or cohesion of the work as a whole. The underlying technique unifying the Vespers is the use of traditional plainsong chants as the basic building block (cantus firmus) of each movement. The technical compositional skill combined with the communication of powerful inspiration make a performance of this work an event to be treasured and remembered.

The performance at Duke Chapel supported and enhanced this assessment with an array of extraordinarily skilled and dedicated musicians. Presented by Duke Music’s Medieval and Renaissance Music series, TEMPO (Triangle Early Music), the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts, the Duke Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Romance Studies, and Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, the performance featured selected singers from Duke and Durham choirs, the Piffaro Renaissance Band, and instrumentalists from the Duke Collegium Musicum, all under direction of Rodney Wynkoop.

The guest group, Piffaro, provided instruments widely used in the late Medival and Renaissance periods, including dulcian, shawm, recorders, sackbuts, cornetto, and theorbo. Most of the artists played two or three instruments, each as needed in response to Monteverdi’s demands. Violins, violas, violone, viola da gamba, lute and organ, were played by members of the Duke Collegium. All these instruments were used in a great variety of combinations with the chorus and soloists to provide ethereal sounds ranging from meditation and prayer to triumphant and exuberant proclamations of joy and praise. The choir, handpicked by maestro Wynkoop, included some of the finest singers of the Durham area, many of them heard in professional soloist roles by Triangle audiences. The demands of Vespro della Beata Vergine are enormous and the work required to present this performance as have might have heard in St. Mark’s Basicilica in Venice in the early seventeenth century must have been costly as well as rewarding even for these superb singers. Many of the late Renaissance/early Baroque ornamentation practices are quite difficult and unfamiliar to twenty-first century singers.

The vocal soloists were Kristen Blackman, soprano, Elizabeth Terry, soprano, Philip Anderson, tenor, Matthew Loyal Smith, tenor with Erica Dunkle, alto, William Grisaitis, tenor, Lewis Moore, bass, and Jeremy Nabors, cantor; all of them dealing with unique challenges with such expertise as though they were familiar practice.  

The opening Versicle and Response from Psalm 70:1, “Deus, in adjutorium,” calls on God’s help. Each filled the chapel in its unique way: the solo plain song Versicle with a personal sense of intimacy and the full choir and instrumental Response with a sense of the powerful appeal of the community. This movement makes use of material from the introduction to Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo, composed three years earlier.

The following Psalm, “Dixit Dominus,” Psalm 110, makes use of a six-voice choir and a combination of six instruments. It was performed with impressive precision and expressiveness. The Motet “Nigra sum,” taken from verses of the Song of Solomon, was gorgeously sung by Anderson.

The next Psalm, “Laudate pueri,” Psalm 113, written for eight-voice choir and organ, demonstrates Monteverdi’s mastery of the “old style” of renaissance structure while introducing some more progressive harmonies. It was a real test of the skills and discipline of the chorus which they handled masterfully. The responsorial motet which follows (“Pulchra es,” from Song of Solomon) is an exquisite duet done with organ and Theorbo.

“Laetatus sum” (“I was glad when they said to me,” Psalm 122) is a joyful setting of this familiar text for six-voice choir employing a variety of “new style” practices such as “walking bass” and varied tonal colors and textures. The motet, “Duo Seraphim,” including text from Isaiah 6:3 and I John 5:7, is sung by three tenors and is by all accounts one of the remarkable segments of the Vespers. The first part is a duet (“Two angels were calling one to the other …”) filled with extraordinary florid vocal demands. When the text from I John mentions the Trinity, a third tenor joins. All three sing in unison at the words, “these three are one.” The tenors in today’s performance sang with jaw-dropping precision and expertise.

Next we heard another amazing piece of compositional and performance skill, “Nisi Dominus” (“Unless the Lord were to build the house,” Psalm 127), scored for ten-voice choir. Varieties of rhythm, texture, and dynamics were handled with impeccable confidence by this outstanding choral group. The following motet is an anonymous nonliturgical poem set for two tenors singing call and response with a supporting 6-voice choir. There were moments of sheer otherworldly awe in this performance.

Psalm 147:12-20, “Lauda Jerusalem Dominum” (“Praise the Lord, Jerusalem”), is a joyful setting for two choirs of three voices each plus tenor cantus firmus. Then the hymn “Sancta Maria” (“Holy Mary, pray for us”) is written as a sonata for instruments with sopranos singing in unison – tenderly, affectionately. This was followed by the 8th century plainsong hymn, “Ave maris stella,” scored for double choir and a variety of solos adding contrasting textures. It was grand statement from Monteverdi performed exquisitely by this assemblage of music makers.

The concluding “Magnificat” is an astonishing display of musical genius and inspiration The expression of the text through a dazzling array of textures, colors, and styles certainly establishes Monteverdi as one of the great composers of all time.   

Today’s outstanding performance by a remarkable collection of musicians stands out as one of the most gratifying experiences in my years as a reviewer. There is no doubt that the reason behind the infrequent performance of this epochal work is its severe demands vocally, instrumentally and interpretive. We owe a great debt to all the people who contributed in any way to this phenomenal performance. Such a performance is an EVENT to be cherished thanks to the widely acclaimed artistry of Piffaro, the broad skills of the musicians of Collegium, the outstanding soloists and the incredible chorus all brought together with precision, balance and artistic elegance by the unmatched musical wisdom of Wynkoop. It is this reviewer’s hope that we do not have to wait for the composer’s next centenary celebration to hear this seminal work again.

Revised/updated 11/27/10.