Now that I have your attention:
Imagine attending a performance of a new piece of music — sacred music on sacred texts, employing solo voices, choirs and a wide array of instruments. As eclectic, avant-garde and positively psychedelic as anything you’ve heard , the work is nonetheless grounded in something very familiar — old hymn tunes like, perhaps, “Amazing Grace” or “Simple Gifts,” each treated with loving reverence as it flows placidly through the dizzying panoply of sounds. Entirely new, but tapping into the deepest, oldest vein of spirituality, the music is the most thrilling, moving and beautiful you’ve ever heard. You wouldn’t want to miss it, would you?
Well, clear the evening January 31 on your calendar, set your ears back 400 years, and get thee to Abbey Memorial Chapel on the campus of Mt. Holyoke College for Arcadia Players‘ upcoming performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine — Vespers of the Blessed Virgin.
Composed during a time of tremendous stylistic transformation, as the old Renaissance ways were giving way the exciting new performing modes of what we now call the Baroque, the Vespers combine florid solo voices, powerful choirs and a dazzling instrumentarium (the cornetti alone are worth the price of admission) in a manner that, novel for its time, remains fresh and surprising all these centuries later. Taking their texts from the Psalms, the Song of Songs, St. Luke (the Magnificat) and other biblical sources, the Vespers also frankly indulge in secular, well-nigh theatrical pleasures — little wonder since its immortal composer was also the first genius of opera. Yet for all that is new in the Vespers, they remain grounded in the plainchant melodies that even then had been sung for centuries — the cantus firmus of a faith, and of a musical tradition.
Wonderful on recordings (those by Boston Baroque and Apollo’s Fire are good choices; the Spotify stream of the latter is included below), Monteverdi’s Vespers really have to be heard live at least once in every music lover’s lifetime. Ian Watson and the Arcadians always do justice and then some to the great works they perform. Don’t miss it.