The Thirteen opens season in stirring fashion with Monteverdi’s epic “Vespers”

Sat Oct 22, 2022 at 1:13 pm
By Alex Baker

Matthew Robertson conducted The Thirteen in Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 Friday night at Episcopal High School Chapel in Alexandria. Photo: Stan Engebretson

The Thirteen opened its season in Alexandria Friday night with a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s monumental Vespers of 1610, led by founder Matthew Robertson. 

Monteverdi’s work is the subject of endless musicological debate over the appropriate forces, the proper keys for various movements, and even whether the pieces collected in the 1610 publication,—a demonstration of Monteverdi’s skills as he was seeking a new appointment—were even intended for performance as a single work.

Intended or not, the pieces form a cohesive whole in modern performance. Beginning with a series of psalms common to feasts dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Monteverdi develops material for different ensemble configurations over the simple tones that would have guided the recitation of the psalms in a service, interspersed with expressive “concerto” movements for solo voices. Additional movements, including the Marian hymn Ave maris stelle, are followed by a setting of the Magnificat that would have closed the Vespers service.

Monteverdi fills this structure with a dazzling puzzle box of early Baroque invention that repeatedly outdoes itself with novel ideas and effects. A recurring trope is the renaissance and baroque interest in juxtaposition of contrasting forces. The Vespers offer an endless set of variations on this idea, from arrangements for double choir, to small ensembles in different registers, to “echo” effects often accompanied by separation in the space. In richness of form and creativity, the Vespers is a unique work in the surviving repertoire of the period, likely to win over even those listeners who tend to shy away from composers pre-dating J.S. Bach.

Calling for a total of 10 vocal lines, the Vespers are sometimes performed with a traditional chorus, but the presentation here, performed at Episcopal High School Chapel, featured one voice per part. While this approach may sacrifice some definition in the heavier choral writing that can be realized with massed forces, it also offers opportunities for greater intimacy with the solo singers. 

The Thirteen skillfully adapted to their dual rules as soloists and choir members, switching between full-blooded operatic voices and well blended ensemble singing as needed.

The balances among the assembled forces at the outset of the work took a bit of time to adjust, with the smaller vocal contingents overwhelmed by the full band in the opening “Deus in adjutorium” (featuring some of the fanfare material from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo of 1607) and “Dixit Dominus.” 

But subsequent movements featured a well-integrated, transparent combination of vocalists and instrumentalists. This allowed many finely wrought details to come to the fore, from floating high voices arrayed against rapid figurative writing for the men in the “Laudate, pueri,” to cascading figures traded back and forth in the “Laetatus sum,” and the finely shaded small group singing in the heart rending “Et misericordia” section of the Magnificat. The combined group also demonstrated their ability to deliver a full, plush sound when called upon, as in moments like the majestic opening and closing stanzas of the “Ave maris Stella.”

The “concerto” numbers highlighted strong contributions from the individual members of The Thirteen. Michele Kennedy delivered the setting of “Nigra sum et Formosa” from the Song of Songs, her agile soprano capturing the song’s playfulness and making a strong impression in the ascending figures on the words “Surge, amica mea.” Soprano Molly Quinn and mezzo Katelyn Jackson partnered to deliver exquisitely woven lines for another setting from the Song of Songs, “Pulchra es, amica Mei.” In the unique “Duo Seraphim” movement, tenors Oliver Mercer, Aaron Sheehan, and Stephen Soph brilliantly realized the initial ornamented duet material as the seraphim call to each other, as well as in the close suspensions illustrating the trinity.

The Thirteen’s instrumentalists, supplemented here by members of the Dark Horse Consort on sackbuts (a mellower period trombone) and recorders, delivered rich and varied support for the vocalists. 

Yet the Vespers are almost as much of a showcase for individual instrumentalists, who are highlighted in a variety of ways in tandem and apart from the vocal music. Winds stood out in notable passages like the recorder and cornetto section in the “Ave maris stella” hymn, and the charming cornetto duet (played by Alexandra Opsahl and Kiri Tollaksen) in the “Deposuit Potentes” section of the Magnificat. Also notable were the two theorbos (a sort of giant lute) played by John Lenti and Billy Simms, which provided sensitive accompaniment in many of the solo pieces.

The key highlight for the band, however, is the “Sonata sopra sancta Maria,” mainly an instrumental movement punctuated by repeated vocal chant. This is a remarkable composition, featuring virtuoso displays from the players in a procession of different meters and configurations. Led by wonderfully expressive playing in the violins by Adriane Post and Carrie Krause, the Thirteen’s instrumentalists offered an exhilarating combination of both precision and spontaneity in the movement’s hairpin turns.

The Vespers call for a wide variety of effects and Matthew Robertson’s conducting was well-tuned to these shifting moods, demonstrating a sure hand in both the driving pulse of the “Nisi Dominus” and the swinging exuberance of the “Lauda Jerusalem.” Thoughtfully deployed dynamics (surely another musicological minefield) added interest in movements like the “Ave Maria Stella” setting, though could have helped to add more variation in places like the “Dixit Dominus.” Deliberate handling of the final “Sicut erat in principio” chorus delivered a profound sense of closure to the work.

The published Vespers do not include the short antiphons between each section that would have been tailored to the relevant feast day, allowing modern interpreters another choice in how they present the work. The exposed antiphon lines selected here were sung with impeccable clarity and a flawless unison sound by female voices from the Children’s Chorus of Washington, conducted by artistic director Margaret Nomura Clark.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Peter’s Capitol Hill, and 5 p.m. Sunday at Bradley Hills Church in Bethesda.

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