Arts & Events

New: Jeffrey Thomas Finds Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers Challenging

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday April 10, 2018 - 12:41:00 PM

Over the weekend of April 6-9, American Bach Soloists performed Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, also known as Vespro della Beata Vergine, at various locations in the Bay Area. However, due to the fact that Jeffrey Thomas, founder and music director of American Bach Soloists, maintains that it is almost impossible to reconstruct an ‘authentic’ version of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, what ABS performed this weekend was a jerry-rigged program of selections from Monteverdi combined with material by Giovanni Gabrieli. Of course, Monteverdi and Gabrieli are linked by the fact that Giovanni Gabrieli was Monteverdi’s predecessor as maestro di cappella at Venice’s Basilica of San Marco. Moreover, it is quite likely that Monteverdi’s decision to publish his 1610 Mass and Vespers at the Venetian press of Ricciardo Amadino, and to dedicate it to Pope Paul V, marked an ambitious move by Monteverdi in hopes of finding more lucrative employment in either Venice or Rome than he currently held at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, where he was poorly paid and overworked.  

Although a trip to Rome in 1611 produced nothing of benefit to Monteverdi, when Giovanni Gabrielli died in 1612, Monteverdi applied for the suddenly vacant position at San Marco in Venice, auditioned there, and was awarded this prestigious post at a higher salary than his predecessor. It is quite possible, by the way, that the work performed by Monteverdi at his San Marco audition was his 1610 Vespers, perhaps preceded by Monteverdi’s backward-looking polyphonic mass in the style of Flemish composer Nicolas Gombert. Such a combination of works, the Mass demonstrating Monteverdi’s mastery of the old established style, and the Vespers demonstrating Monteverdi’s own strikingly new style, would no doubt have impressed his auditors at San Marco. 

For our current Bay Area performances, Jeffrey Thomas chose to open with a work by Giovanni Gabrieli, In Ecclesiis, from Symphoniae Sacrae liber secundus. This work utilizes the cori spezzati polychoral style fashionable at San Marco, with three distinct groups of either voices or instruments sounding forth from different locations within the basilica. Groups I and II are comprised of four voices each, while the third group consists of cornettos, violin, and trombones. Following this piece by Gabrieli came Monteverdi’s introduction to his 1610 Vespers, Deus in auditorium. Then came the psalm Dixit Dominus for six voices and six instruments, followed by a motet, Nigra sum, beautifully sung here by countertenor Jay Carter accompanied only by Richard Stone on theorbo. This was the highlight of the evening. There ensued a polyphonic choral piece, Laudate pueri and a motet for two sopranos, the motet ably sung here by Kathryn Aungst and Julie Bosworth and accompanied on theorbo and violoncello by Richard Stone and William Skeen. Concluding the first half of the program was the choral psalm Laetatus sum. 

After intermission, American Bach Soloists opened with an instrumental piece, a Canzone à 10, by Giovanni Gabrieli. Following this came a continuation of the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers, beginning with a motet followed by a choral psalm. Then came another highlight as countertenor Jay Carter sang the motet Audi coelum with echoes sung by a chorus. Jay Carter’s robust countertenor voice rang out with strength, clarity, and gorgeous tone. Next came a choral psalm and a choral hymn. Then, to close the program, Jeffrey Thomas chose neither of the two Magnificats written by Monteverdi for his 1610 Vespers, but rather a Magnificat by Giovanni Gabrielli. There was, overall, something arbitrary, it seemed to me, in Jeffrey Thomas’s inclusion of pieces by Gabrielli in Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers and his omission of several bits of material from Monteverdi’s published score for these Vespers. But the music was beautiful, so I suppose one shouldn’t cavil about such a confusing shell-game of now you know the composer, now you don’t.