Time travel is usually the province of science fiction, but Ruben Valenzuela, Music Director of the BachCollegium San Diego, is bold enough to defy convention and undertake time travel by means of an early music concert. His Venetian Vespers program on Friday (May 17) at La Jolla’s St. James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church constructed a service of Marian Vespers as it might have been given in 1640 at the fabled St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
Filling in the musical portions of the Roman Catholic Vespers ritual with Psalms and motets by Claudio Monteverdi (Music Director at St. Mark’s from 1613 to 1642) and his circle, Valenzuela’s choir of seven virtuoso solo singers accompanied by a dozen period instrumentalists conjured a vibrant and at times sumptuous musical facsimile of 17th-century Venetian liturgy. We only needed the attendant pungent plumes of incense to complete the sensuous aura of that remote era.
Most choral singers and aficionados know Mozart’s two sets of Vespers for choir and orchestra (K. 321 & K. 339), but the BachCollegium San Diego amply demonstrated that the roots of this tradition flourished some 150 years before the young Mozart penned his mellifluous compositions for the cranky Slazburg archbishop. Hearing the lavish tenor solo that opens Alessandro Grandi’s exuberant Marian motet “O Intemerata,” it is tempting to call this style operatic. But in truth, opera was just beginnning to take shape at this time in Italy, and the new musical idiom we now call “concertato style” infused both sacred and secular dramatic music with equal enthusiasm.
Tenor Aaron Sheehan dashed off the solo flourishes of “O Intemerata” with bright colors and an uncanny combination of abandon and precision. He partnered amicably in scintillating duets with tenor Scott Mello in Monteverdi’s “Laudate pueri” (Psalm 112), as did the two sopranos, Jolle Greenleaf and Anne-Marie Dicce and basses Patrick Walders and Jeff Fields.
A hallmark of this early Baroque style is the pairing of equal voices in extended flourishes, punctuated by strong chordal explosions from the full choir. Giovanni Antonio Rigatti’s rousing “Magnificat” brandished many such grand choral outbursts with surprising facility, bringing to mind the impressive pomp of Handel’s “Coronation Anthems” from the opposite end of the Baroque era.
As usual, Valenzuela’s period orchestra performed with stylish cohesion. His ensemble of well-trained regulars, guided by[php snippet=1] concertmaster Pierre Joubert, consistently complemented and spurred the singers’ zeal. Joubert and violinist Janet Strauss offered a sweet-toned, supple account of a Sonata by Giovanni Battista Buonamente, one of the program’s two instrumental offerings. Francesco Usper’s “Sonata á 8” for the full orchestra sounded tentative, as did the Gregorian antiphons provided by Gabriel Arregui and his schola of male singers placed at the rear of the church.
No doubt alternating the lavish choral pieces from the front of the church with quiet antiphonal chanting looked good on paper. But in performance, the antiphons seemed superfluous.
Nevertheless, the Venetian Vespers brought together an amazing body of sacred music that few choral groups undertake, and even fewer are able to render with the sensitivity and skill the BachCollegium has in spades. We await with anticipation the announcement on June 1, 2013, of the upcoming season of BachCollegium San Diego.