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You might gasp audibly upon learning that The Oxford Dictionary of Music proclaims that Claudio "Monteverdi's place in the history of Renaissance music can justly be compared to Shakespeare's in literature." That high regard was echoed stateside by Ted Libbey in The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music: "To paraphrase his contemporary Shakespeare, he bestrode the musical world like a colossus." Yet many at the Myers Park Presbyterian Church where Bach Akademie Charlotte presented their latest concert, Venetian Vespers conducted by Scott Allen Jarrett were probably witnessing a live performance of Monteverdi's music for the first time. Others had likely never heard Monteverdi anywhere but in church and/or on recordings in their entire lives. As far as I can tell, the Renaissance colossus has never had a hearing at Belk Theater or Knight Theater in Charlotte. I'm fairly certain that my first live encounter with Monteverdi was at Spoleto Festival USA in 1991, when L'Incoronazione di Poppea was presented at Dock Street Theatre. Before then, my revelations had happened at local libraries in Columbia and Charlotte, where I could borrow and fall in love with vinyl recordings of Monteverdi's Madrigals (there are nine books of them) followed by my discovery of L'Orfeo, the first masterpiece in opera history.
In keeping with the tone of the venues where Bach Akademie usually performs – and the liturgical spirit of their marquee composer – Jarrett, with a small chorus of six voices and an instrumental quintet, focused on two major sacred works that bookended Monteverdi's career, his Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) and his Selva morale e spiritual (1641). Sensing a general unfamiliarity with Monteverdi's music and his importance, Jarrett spoke at length on both, stressing the cultural eminence of Venice at the peak of the Renaissance and Monteverdi's towering influence over how composers would write for voice after he upended traditional practice by prioritizing text over music.
The texts that Bach Akademie performed were mostly scriptural and liturgical Latin, but Jarrett and his musicians also dipped into the "moral madrigals" found in the Selva collection, with Italian texts written by Francesco Petrarch and Angelo Grillo. In fact, Jarrett's selections were admirably proportional to the original collections: we had twice as many excerpts from the Selva as we heard from the Vespro, and the Italian songs gave us a balanced representation of the larger collection, which on complete recordings is just over twice the size of the 1610 Vespers.
We began and ended the concert with full ensemble pieces from the Selva, starting with "Laudate Dominum" (second version). Sopranos Margaret Carpenter Haigh and Arwen Myers blithely chimed the opening exhortation – "let us praise" – over and over, interspersed with full choral and instrumental passages, along with a couple of merry exchanges between tenors Nick Karageorgiou and Steven Caldicott Wilson. Four of the six Selva selections were originally for accompaniment by two violins, slots ably filled by two mainstays of Boston's exemplary Handel and Haydn Society, concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky and Fiona Hughes.
Replacing the four trombones in the score as well as playing their own parts, Nosky and Hughes figured more prominently in the "Gloria" that followed Jarrett's impressive disquisition. This larger-scaled composition also offered more opportunity for the vocalists to shine, the tenors declaiming the title word most often before the sopranos dominated with their filigree on the recurring "Domine." Thanks to Jarrett's intro, we were also on the lookout for the heavenly harmony lavished on the stately "peace on earth" passage, enriched by Edmund Milly's bass-baritone, cellist Guy Fishman, and organist Nicolas Haigh.
Accompanied solely by Deborah Fox on theorbo, Myers and Margaret Haigh gave us a marvelous first sampling of the Vespro, "Pulchra es," set to two amorous verses from the Song of Solomon, delicately straddling the borderline between chastity and seduction as they sang from opposite sides of the chancel. Both sopranos rejoined the male vocalists as we returned to the Selva with "Laudate pueri" (first version). The men harmonized sweetly to launch this setting of Psalm 113 before the sopranos quickened the tempo and lifted the music to joy and jubilation.
I wondered how Jarrett and Bach Akademie planned to handle "Duo Seraphim," the next Vespro selection, since it was written for three tenors, according to the program booklet, and the conductor deployed Karageorgiou and Wilson to opposite ends of the stage. Akademie's artistic director must have also anticipated some suspense in the room, for it wasn't until halfway through the piece that the third tenor walked to his place upstage, behind organist Nicolas Haigh – Milly, the bass! While Milly's tessitura didn't need to reach quite as high as the two other tenors', he did quite well, actually sounding louder than his comrades on a few notes. Of course, there's another way of construing the drama of Jarrett's staging. At the exact point where the text departed momentarily from its familiar Isaiah 6 refrain, and the heavenly witnesses to the seraphs' "Holy, holy, holy" call were cataloged as "the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit," Milly took his spot upstage before the three were said to be one.
Composed while Monteverdi was still in service to the Duke of Mantua, the "Dixit Dominus" for six voices and instruments seemed to be specially crafted for the acoustics of the Venetian Basilica of San Marco where he would later serve as the chapel maestro. John Eliot Gardner's recording of the complete Vespro at San Marco with the English Baroque Soloists in 1986 implicitly made that point, and Jarrett, both in his introductory remarks and with the ensemble's performance, made that point explicitly at Myers Park Presbyterian.
Although she didn't get much of the vocal spotlight, alto Laura Atkinson picked up a microphone to preface the remaining three Selva selections. Both of the poems that followed, written by Monteverdi for the other five voices, proved worthy of the pulpit, as their translated titles indicated: Petrarch's "O blind ones! What use is all your toiling?" and Grillo's "This life is a flash of lightning." Reminding us that this was Bach Akademie and that the Charlotte Bach Festival is slated for its return on June 10-17 (if interim managing director Garrett Murphy's fundraising goal is met), Jarrett and company gave us a small-scale preview of the plenty to come with Johann's "Sanctus in D." Not the swiftest version you'll ever hear, but light, lively, and irresistible.
"Beatus vir" (first version), set to Psalm 112, was an apt finale to this Venetian Vespers concert, carrying forward the festive mood of the penultimate Bach with invigorating vocal counterpoint – Monteverdi writing here for six exactly voices at last – and providing Nosky and Hughes, as the two violinists also prescribed by the score, with their best opportunities to shine. But it wasn't until the music slowed down, where the Psalmist spoke on the steadfastness of a God-fearing man in the face of evil tidings, that the finale became truly grand. The sheer massiveness of the sound summoned up the church to mix its harmonies, reminding us that we were in a house of worship.