Transparent, Illuminating Monteverdi From Tenet

Church of St Jean Baptiste, Lexington and 76th Street, New York; January 3, 2019—Tenet’s Green Mountain Project is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and as usual, and gratefully, Monteverdi’s great Vespers of 1610 is central to their programming. Their approach to the work always has been devotional rather than celebratory, but this hardly means the reading lacks drama. And this year, musical director Scott Metcalfe has limited his vocal forces to one voice to a part (with some back-up from a fine group of sopranos and mezzos called Chant Schola in the more vastly scored pieces). Fans of great waves of sound may have been disappointed, but I must admit, to use a familiar metaphor, whereas in grander performances with larger forces, I felt in a vast, beautiful forest, here, suddenly, I was appreciating the individual trees as well. Moments of inaccurate ensemble and wavering pitch can disappear in a musical forest; happily, at the January 3rd performance at St Jean Baptiste Church in Manhattan, each tree was healthy, handsome, and could stand on its own.

The Deus in adjutorium had its effect as a big-boned, fervent plea, and in the Dixit Dominus Monteverdi shows almost his whole hand—dueling choirs, solos, simple monody out of which great elaboration blossoms. Tenor soloist Aaron Sheehan sings the Nigra sum (from the Song of Songs) with pure tone from the low note that opens the motet (on the word “nigra”=”black”) through the rising scale of the word “surge”,  a call, yes, for the speaker to rise up. Sopranos Jolle Greenleaf and Molly Quinn sang the duet Pulchra es smoothly, with straight, exquisite, vibrato-free tone; watching them collaborate vocally proved as stunning as hearing them.

The slimmed down Laetatus sum featured two each of soprano and tenor, one alto and bass, with just three theorbos and organ; being able to spot and analyze the give-and-take from such a small group proved an education in how Monteverdi tosses vocal lines from one group to another. In Duo seraphim, scored for three tenors, two angelic voices cry out; when the Trinity is invoked a third joins in precise imitation. The effects are playful, dramatic, and always surprising to the ear, introducing dissonances, soon resolved, that startle and entertain. Sheehan, Jason McStoots, and James Reese were the perfectly tuned tenors, down to the most filigreed coloratura and the bizarre trills on one note that are favored by the composer.

If the cry of “omnes” late in the Audi coelum seemed a bit light, the call from authoritative bass Sumner Thompson and the response, from the rear of the church from the beautiful tenor sound of McStoots could not have been more effective. The sheer variety of sounds and forms in the Vespers is staggering, and before each psalm Metcalfe added a brief Antiphon (plainchant) for the First Vespers of the Feast of the Purification which falls on February 2. The women who performed the antiphons moved invisibly to different parts of the church; the listener was acoustically surprised each time they sang.

Preferring slowish tempos, Metcalfe emphasized the pious; nonetheless, he invited elaborate ornamentation from singers as well as instrumentalists, even the cornettos and sackbuts found places to improvise. The sheer transparency of the polyphony made one sit up as rarely happens in bigger-boned readings; audience members–a Vespers-loyal crowd–mouthed along with certain lines of text, even in the most complex parts. Enlightening and entertaining at once.