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Tales of Two Vespers: 350 Years Apart, They Give the World What it Needs

Great music often takes on the color of its surroundings, but Vespers does so more than most musical containers – if only because, in most cases, the music is assembled to suit the particular occasion.

Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 was the big exception, something consciously composed and published as a whole entity (as opposed to something pieced together out of anthologies of psalm settings and the like, which is the usual procedure for a Vespers service). Having had great success with the 1610 Vespers over the past two years, the Green Mountain Project in New York pieced together for New Year’s 2012 a new evening of Monteverdi, calling it A Grand Festive Vespers in Venice, c. 1640 (performed Jan. 3 and 4 in Manhattan and Jan 7 in Boston). Only days later, first in Philadelphia (Jan. 7 and 8) and then in New York (Jan. 9), came Kile Smith’s Vespers (2008), and performed by the Renaissance band Piffaro and the choir The Crossing. Should we be surprised that pieces from such different, distant times would address the state of the union with such common purpose? I was.

Let me explain my state of mind at the dawn of 2012: It’s no news that America hasn’t been so polarized since the Vietnam War. Just when the Republicans and Democrats can’t be further apart – in what amounts to governance in the spirit of King Kong vs. Godzilla – the Republican side has now been tearing itself apart as its candidates battle to the death, Jerry Springer style, in normally sedate places like Iowa and New Hampshire. Evangelism was once pretty much limited to religious circles; now, it often seems that everybody is evangelizing about everything.

It’s a sign of the times that Richard Nixon now seems like a voice of sanity. When elected in the tumultuous year of 1968, he spoke of seeing a supporter sign that said “Bring us together.” Okay,  Nixon didn’t make good on that endeavor. But in the early 21st century, togetherness seems like a cause so lost that it’s hardly worth mentioning.

Art – that bête noire of ring-wing legislators – brings enemies together. At least it puts them in the same room and forces them to be quiet for a while. And the art I encountered in the two recent Vespers concerts were more than diversion: they were demonstrations of how dichotomies are resolved.

When Monteverdi wrote his 1610 Vespers, he was in the high summer of his professional life, practicing a creative brinksmanship, bursting out of the highly formalized polyphony that was still very much the rule in European sacred music. Composers were now free to re-invent music as they wanted rather than falling in line with prescribed precepts. That was particularly obvious with the invention of opera: suddenly, music was populated quite literally by individual voices expressing their inner selves. Renaissance polyphony, for all of its abstract, ethereal glory, could never accommodate that.

So here was Monteverdi, beginning his Vespers service with the same fanfare that heralded his opera Orfeo (bringing opera into the church, symbolically speaking) and going on to set psalms with each line seeming to have a life of its own, placed cheek-by-jowl in such a demonstration of heterogeneity that the music seemed almost cut and pasted together – almost. Because once you’re used to this new, alternative aesthetic, the seams are as much a part of the music’s genius as anything else.

The 1640 Vespers assembled by the Green Mountain Project still have that quality, though it’s markedly tempered. While the 1610 Vespers were integrated as a whole, with most sections built on a common floor plan – a cantus firmus, more or less – the individual psalm settings that made up the 1640 program, not wedded in that way, were more integrated from within. The outer treble and bass lines often had long held notes that gave the music a more cohesive shape than before, with the main source of text characterization and musical movement taking place within. At times, the pieces buzzed like a musical hive. Obviously, this is more mature Monteverdi, some of the pieces perhaps having been written as a survivor of the 1630 plague that ripped through Venice. Not everything selected by Green Mountain music director Scott Metcalfe was Monteverdi, but tapped pieces of similar nature by Gabrieli and Cozzolani. Whatever the compositional circumstance, the music certainly spoke to my integration-starved soul.

So does Kile Smith. Little known in New York City, this Philadelphia-based composer lived fairly quietly as the curator for the Fleischer Collection (a huge musical lending library) until he was handed an unorthodox opportunity: Write a Vespers service for the Renaissance wind band Piffaro, with vocal contributions from the then-recently formed choir The Crossing. The result was a hit at its Jan. 2008 premiere. At that time, the piece arrived at my ears as a triumph of neo-tonalism – at a time when I wondering how long that trend would last before being exhausted. (Remember, Jake Heggie’s hit opera Moby Dick and Jennifer Higdon’s Pulitzer-winning Violin Concerto were yet to be finished.) When the Smith Vespers was brought back in 2012 – simply because The Crossing and Piffaro love it and wanted to revive it – its manner of expression spoke to me more strongly.

Concert works on religious texts often have notable histrionics – the Berlioz and Verdi Requiems, for example – but Smith’s music is even less demonstrative than the low-key Fauré Requiem. Though the genial composer has been an ultra-devout Lutheran his entire adult life and describes himself as politically conservative, his music is almost anti-evangelistic. Firmly and honestly, the music doesn’t project beliefs so much as it is evidence of a spiritual way of life. There’s absolutely no guile or strategy behind it. I’m tempted to say it practices a policy of attraction to spirituality rather than promotion. But there is no policy here.

What the music sounds like: Consonant harmonies (I describe them as Anglican-influenced, to Smith’s consternation), with a lot of interior counterpoint that operates within a narrow range of notes without ever feeling contained or circumscribed. Some compare him to Eric Whitacre, though Smith doesn’t go for anything as literal as Whitacre’s graphic descriptiveness. Several instrumental-only movements are Lutheran hymn settings without articulation of the actual hymns. There’s plenty of joy – though not with anything as superficial or as potentially vulgar as jubilation. (That’s best left to John Rutter, whose spirituality often sounds like a fanfare for The Olympics).  Smith’s Magnificat is full of wonderful canonic writing that has a simple, straightforward effect – achieved through a complexity of means that could only be the work of an extremely accomplished composer.

De-dramatized, de-politicized spiritually-oriented music is no stranger to admirers of Arvo Pärt. But even at his most secular, Pärt seems to echo, however distantly, the asceticism of the Eastern Orthodox Church. If Smith is writing for a church, it’s one without walls.

Neither of these events would’ve had such meaning without performances of high quality and visibility. Green Mountain Project performs Monteverdi with seemingly complete comprehension, confidence and grace. Singers are ideally chosen for both solo and ensemble singing, displaying great clarity of pitch without sounding antiseptic. Metcalfe’s pacing always had a strong sense of pulse. In the Kile Smith Vespers, the performance by The Crossing and Piffaro was a step up from the excellent recording made months after the premiere if only because balances are more equal between voices and instruments. Everything was more clearly etched. How ironic that the more clear the music’s focus, the less it asks, on any level, to be received. It simply becomes more beautiful, and if you have any sense, you’ll want to draw closer.

Comments

  1. A lovely post, but I’m puzzled by your confidence about the origin of the Monteverdi Vespers. There’s precious little grounds for it, so far as I can see. Many believe that it is indeed a compilation, albeit a beautifully composed (in the literal sense) one. Scholarly opinion is divided on the subject — and debates have been heated; surely that bears mentioning?

    • Why, exactly, Monteverdi wrote the 1610 Vespers has been cause for debate – the long-held belief that he wrote it for St. Marks in Venice is now pretty much discredited – though the cantus-firmus unification strongly suggests, at least to me, that it was written as all of a piece rather than compiled. My post is really more of a social context approach to the subject.

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