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DeLong: Joyful sound of Early Music Voices rings true in Monteverdi's Vespers

Kenneth DeLong, Calgary Herald Updated: May 6, 2019

Splendid occasions need splendid music with which to celebrate them. And there are few works more splendid than Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, the work chosen to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the establishing of the Early Music Voices concert series in Calgary.


The brainchild of singer/organizer Julie Harris, then freshly returned to Calgary after several years of study, Early Music Voices was established to bring a wide range of early music concerts to Calgary, at the time a city with little presence in this area of classical music. Over the years, the series has grown in the range and variety of artists and music it has featured, and it now is able to mount large works such as Monteverdi’s celebrates Vespers of 1610. Normally held in the attractive sanctuary of Christ Church Elbow Park, the concerts now draw a large audience, as for example the recital recently presented by internationally celebrated counter-tenor Andreas Scholl earlier this season.


The series is also linked with the vocal quartet VoiceScapes (which includes Harris) and to the newly established Baroque-style orchestra Rosa Barocca conducted by Red Deer-based conductor Claude Lapalme. These forces typically form the core of the performers when, as on this occasion, a project needs soloists and larger instrumental forces. Over the years the ad hoc choir assembled for the bigger projects has stabilized into a regular cohort of vocalists drawn from the upper echelons of Calgary’s choral community. Last Christmas, for example, the combined forces of Early Music Voices and Rosa Barocca put on a sold-out performance of Handel’s Messiah.


For the occasion of the 20th anniversary performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, still other instrumentalists were brought in from Vancouver, including concertmaster Paul Luchkow and harpsichordist Michael Jarvis, as well as performers on the theorbo and the violones. With the members of Rosa Barocca the instruments provided a “glorious noise” to support the 14-member solo choir and the amplifying ripieno choir.


Monteverdi’s celebrated Vespers is a large-scale work, as big in scope as an opera. It requires not only full choral resources, but contains many solos, duets, and trios, all of which are combined in different ways to produce a maximum of variety in musical texture. While there are certainly contemplative moments, much of the music is joyful and celebratory in nature.


All this requires performers with enthusiasm and vividness in the projection of the inner emotion of the music. This was certainly the underlying character of this performance. The joyful nature of the music was eloquently captured in powerful moments for the full choir. With more than a dozen soloists, it is not possible to comment individually. However, special mention must go to bass Paul Grindley, who sang all the solo Gregorian antiphons, as well as tenors Jerald Fast and Oliver Munar, both of whom sang with confidence and strength in their extended solo numbers. As on other recent occasions, soprano Hanna Pagenkopf’s voice drew the ear for its exceptional attractiveness, accuracy of pitch, and unwavering eloquence in the delivery of the melodic lines and text.


Perhaps the most compelling parts of the work came at the end of each half and the beginning of the second half. Oliver Munar had, perhaps, the most challenging solo music to sing in the wonderful Audi coelum that opens the second part of the Vespers. Wide-ranging in its vocal demands, it asks for a tenor of substantial ability, giving Munar an excellent opportunity to display his considerable vocal gifts.


As ensemble work, the psalm Nisi Dominus made a commanding close to the first part, as did the Magnificat that closes the entire work. Here the choral work was crisp and clear, with a sense of Baroque grandeur that the audience clearly found compelling.


It was fortunate to have in Paul Luchkow a concertmaster so well attuned to the stylistic aspects of this music, and also to have a powerful continue ensemble with two theorbos, violine, cello, organ, and harpsichord. This part of the performance, expertly led by harpsichordist Michael Jarvis, gave the performance the sense of foundation and power it needs to succeed.


The evening was a time for celebration, and supported by a large, enthusiastic audience, Early Music Voices put its best foot forward in an exceptionally fine account of one of the great masterworks of the pre-Bach era in music.

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