By Douglas Neslund
A very large, almost sold out Walt Disney Concert Hall audience heaped enthusiastic applause and approval on Maestro Grant Gershon and his fellow artists at the conclusion of Claudio Monteverdi’s sprawling Vespers, described in Thomas May’s excellent program annotations as “a diverse, flexible collection of numbers available to be excerpted or performed in various contexts. This diversity was in any case surely meant to display the full range of Monteverdi’s compositional prowess.”
Monteverdi lived at a most interesting time for any composer: at the end of the long Renaissance period in which unmetered music was the rule, mostly in the sacred context, which was challenged by the metered secular madrigals that the composer wrote in his earliest years, a collision of styles that drew criticism down upon his head. Publication of the Vespers, also known as Vespro della Beata Vergine, was his answer to the critics.
Although published in 1610, elements of the Vespers were probably written over a ten-year span prior to that year. There are 13 movements, most of which may be performed independently of the others, but which are largely comprised of Psalm settings interspersed by highly florid solos, duets and smaller ensembles that allow for individual vocal fireworks, some of which are credited to Monteverdi’s own creativity and not carried over into the newly emerging, dryer early Baroque style, and some of which were. It is said that ladies of Ferrara and Mantua vied with each other to produce the most astounding vocal displays.
Such displays were generously performed by several soloists drawn from the ranks of the Master Chorale itself. They were sopranos Suzanne Anderson and Claire Fedoruk; mezzo soprano Janelle DeStefano; tenors Daniel Chaney, Michael Lichtenauer and Matthew Tresler; baritone Scott Graff, and bass Reid Bruton. All were excellent advocates of Monteverdian style points, with Ms. Fedoruk and Mr. Chaney meeting the greatest challenges.
Mr. Tresler’s “Nigra sum” was perhaps the most memorable for artistic shading matched to the text. The duet-cum-trio “Duo Seraphim” (Two Angels) begun by Messrs. Cheney and Lichtenauer (previously incorrectly identified as Mr. Graff), later with the addition of Mr. Tresler when the text changes to “Tres sunt” (There are three), made magic. A personal favorite was the Marian antiphon “Ave maris stella” (Hail, Star of the Sea) brilliantly worked out by Maestro Gershon, starting with an a cappella first stanza, adding to that a solo theorbo accompaniment on the second stanza, joined in the third by the continuo, the next three stanzas sung by Ms. DeStefano, Ms. Fedoruk and Mr. Graff, with all forces combining at the conclusion.
Throughout, the Master Chorale sang with expected brilliance, although for this occasion, a “small call” of 40 voices was employed. In the early 17th century, so far as we know, this music was never performed in a venue the size of Disney Hall, so one can forgive Ms. Fedoruk’s having to choose between projecting to the topmost balcony and singing the delicate filigree to which her voice is so well suited. Her artistry was never in question although not every lower note could be heard.
Maybe it was Maestro Gershon’s intimate association with Los Angeles Opera, where he presides as chorus director, that predisposed a constant movement on stage, but Chorale members were given a virtual road map of stage placements, which humorously led to Mr. Chaney’s forgetting which side he was to be on, and his tip-toeing across to the other side, to the audience’s great amusement. He was not alone in losing focus on placement, by the way. No matter. The singing was always superb.
Los Angeles’s own world class Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra accompanied, with an equally small-sized component of 13 players, of whom Ingrid Matthews and Janet Strauss impressed greatly with their embellished violin interludes in various movements, but particularly in the Sonata sopra: Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis. Maestro Gershon kept a perfect balance between instruments and voices throughout, which is not an easy task in a series of movements constantly shifting participants. The long, sustained applause at concert’s end endorsed Maestro Gershon’s choice of the Vespers, and the utterly musical product that resulted.