Handel & Haydn's "Vespers of 1610": An Auld Person's Guide to the Orchestra

Harry Christophers conducts "Vespers of 1610"
(photo: Kat Waterman)

One never forgets her or his first exposure to Claudio Monteverdi's much beloved Vespers of 1610 or Vespro della Beata Vergine, widely considered a “pillar of the baroque”, a memorable experience that is currently being offered by Boston's Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus and their Vocal Arts Program Young Women's Chamber Choir under the direction of Conductor Harry Christophers. This performance featured the prescribed seven vocal soloists, including soprano Margot Rood, soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad, tenor Jeremy Budd, tenor Mark Dobell, tenor Jonas Budris, baritone Woodrow Bynum, and baritone David McFerrin. Two of them, Budd and Dobell, were integral to the recording of this work in 2015 by the British choir and period instrument ensemble The Sixteen (founded and conducted by Christophers). Based on the daily practice of evening prayers from the hours of the Divine Office, unchanged in 1500 years, this was the most ambitious work of religious music before Bach arrived on the scene. A ninety minute piece for soloists, chorus and orchestra, with both liturgical and secular music, it was not just composed for services. As Teresa M. Neff (Handel and Haydn Historically Informed Performance Fellow) states in the program notes, Monteverdi proclaimed that the “text was the mistress to the music”, with the music expressing the text's emotions, what he called the “second practice” of his composing, complementing the more traditional “first practice”. Often consisting of up to ten vocal parts, it is essentially, as the title indicates, a piece that is profoundly Marian, with the sole exception of the text in the Duo seraphim sung by the three tenors. It was published in 1610 in Venice, dedicated to Pope Paul V.

With the first line in the introductory Deus in adjutorium , followed by a more expansive multi-voiced response, it's clear what is the basis for the work, namely Gregorian plainchant, (with its simple arsis and thesis), along with five Psalms with sacred motets, a traditional hymn, and the setting of the Magnificat, (which concluded all Vespers services). It remains a versatile work, as illustrated for example by the composer's dual scoring of this Magnificat for both large and smaller groups of musicians, and is equally regarded when performed with organ or period instruments. This was easily appreciated with the inclusion of instruments that reflect those of the early 17th century, such as the dulcian (predecessor of the bassoon), the lute-like chitarrone, sackbuts (similar to today's trombones) and the trumpet-like cornetto (leather-wrapped wooden pieces). The chitarrone in particular is a fascinating instrument in both sight and sound.

With so many possible permutations and combinations of vocal and instrumental elements for the listener, the program was a joy to experience. Christophers obviously loves this music, which he has described as emotional and sensual, from its triumphant Orfeo-like operatic beginning to its final flamboyant Amen. It was as much a pleasure to watch his entire-body conducting, as it was to follow Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky with her infectiously exuberant playing. The entire orchestra and chorus were amazingly precise and coordinated. All seven vocal soloists had an opportunity to shine, notably Budd and Dobell, especially in the Audi coelum in which the composer wittily offers a true echoing of the Latin text by dueling tenors, intriguingly utilizing the excellent acoustics of Jordan Hall, where the opening performance took place.

There were two repeat performances, one on Saturday April 8th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the company's first visit to New York since 1996) at the Temple of Dendur, and the other at Sanders Theater in Cambridge on Sunday afternoon April 9th . It's an incomparable event that have been on the schedule of every serious lover of early music.

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