Updated: Aug 31
For all the fame surrounding it, Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine, more commonly known as the Vespers of 1610, isn’t performed all that often — not only because of its massive length (13 movements that unfold over 90 minutes) but because the composer, like many of his Renaissance contemporaries, left many things up to the performers.
“It’s extra complicated because Monteverdi didn’t give us a lot of information,” said Robert Istad, artistic director and conductor of the Pacific Chorale. His group joins other supporting ensembles to perform the massive work on Saturday at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach.
Some historians think that Monteverdi never even heard the piece in its entirety during his lifetime (the composer died in 1643). Istad thinks it wasn’t really intended to be heard that way.
“I don’t think the whole thing was performed very often, but much of it was probably done separately. Something like this was a showpiece for (Monteverdi). He put together festive settings to present to the nobility to lobby for a better position. He was trying to show off what he could do. It’s like the Bach Mass in B Minor — composers put giant multi-movement works together to show they were a master of all these styles.”
The score’s lack of specificity affords interpreters a great deal of flexibility. Monteverdi refrained from setting tempos, dynamics and instrumentation. In certain sections, it’s not clear which passages should be sung by soloists and which should be performed by larger parts of the ensemble. Each conductor who tackles the Vespers must make a series of often complicated decisions, and no two performances are alike as a result.
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