In January 2010, a group of musicians organized under the name "Green Mountain Project" gave a free performance of Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of that monumental work. They repeated in January 2011, and this time being clued-in, I attended. The event was held at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the Times Square neighborhood of Manhattan. I thought the performance was nicely exuberant, but from where I was sitting, at times sonically incoherent because of the particular acoustic of that long, narrow church. The polyphony was blurred every time the tempo picked up… And the house was packed. Free concert, second time making it a new NYC tradition!
Well, they decided to do something different this year. Collaborating with early music specialists from Boston, the NYC-based group, headed by artistic director (and soprano) Jolle Greenleaf and music director (and principal violinist) Scott Metcalfe, has moved to a different location in Manhattan, the Church of St. Jean Baptiste on the Upper East Side, which has much better acoustics for this type of music, and they were also scheduled to repeat their performance in Boston. For a real change of pace, they decided to put together a Marian Vespers service using other Monteverdi settings of the appropriate pieces — the only carryover from the 1610 Vespers was the Ave maris stella hymn –supplemented by two Giovanni Gabrieli canzonas, a Gabrieli motet (Maria virgo), and, instead of using one of the Monteverdi settings of the Magnificat for their close, the spectacular 14-voice Magnificat setting by Gabrieli. They also used a responsory by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani.
The Monteverdi psalms were actually taken mainly from the posthumous Missa e Salmi (1650), although one did come from the 1640 Selva morale e spirituale collection, and there were also several Monteverdi motets from various publications interspersed. They titled it as c. 1640, since it is likely that most if not all of the material they took from the 1650 posthumously-published collection had been written well before 1640. (Monteverdi – Mr. Green Mountain, by the way – died in 1643.)
In other words, this was an alternative Monteverdi Marian Vespers service, and I thought it was very skillfully put together. As with the prior year's 1610 Vespers performance, I found that the performance was really superb, capturing the spirit of the piece with real fervor and bringing together an extraordinary collection of singers and performers on early instruments. (The sackbut playing was truly spectacular, as were the cornettos, theorbos, and baroque bowed string instruments and small organ.) To single out any individual singer or instrumentalist would be invidious, as everybody was on a very high level, so I will content myself with saying that Metcalfe put together an extraordinary performance with Greenleaf's leadership. The acoustics in this church are adequately reverberant for sacred music, but focused enough so that polyphony was clear, and the smaller space than St. Mary also magnified the rich sound when the full ensemble came into play.
I hope they can continue with this annual early January tradition, and continue to explore the baroque sacred repertory. They could actually put together another completely different vespers service, although it wouldn't be a Marian Vespers, from other psalm settings, motets and hymns in the 1640 Selva Morale collection as well as the 1650 posthumous collection. And, of course, it would be wonderful to hear them perform the 1610 Vespers in this more favorable acoustical setting.
As was the case last year, the place was packed with an attentive and enthusiastic audience. Clearly this has become a NYC New Year tradition.