The jazz of the 17th century

Seicento Baroque Ensemble performs Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers

Courtesy Seicento Baroque Ensemble

Claudio Monteverdi was unhappy in his job.

The year was 1608, and the composer was working in Mantua for the spendthrift Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. Monteverdi was overworked, he was paid late if at all, and he hated the swampy environment of Mantua. So he did what any artist would do: he put together a portfolio showing skill in all the latest styles, hoping to be hired away from Mantua — hopefully by the Papal Chapel in Rome.

That is the likely story behind Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Virgine (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin), known as the “1610 Vespers” for the date the collection was published in Venice. Considered one of the great musical products of the Baroque era, the Vespers returns to Boulder and Denver this weekend for performances by Seicento Baroque Ensemble and guest artists under conductor Evanne Brown.

The guests include vocal soloists and players of historical instruments from the local area, Boston and Washington D.C., and Baroque violinist Mimi Mitchell from Amsterdam.

Although it appeared as a single publication, the 1610 Vespers is not a unified work. To make an impressive and varied musical résumé, Monteverdi picked texts from Vespers services, other psalms, hymns and texts from the Song of Solomon.

The result is less a “work” than an anthology of Baroque musical styles. Or as tenor Mark Dobell of the early-music group The Sixteen puts it, “A really great album that just doesn’t have a bad track.”

One outstanding feature of the Vespers is its exuberant display of the newest musical styles. The early 17th century saw the development of opera and other dramatic forms, a freer use of dissonance, the beginning of tonal harmony, and other changes from the modal music of the Renaissance. In fact, Monteverdi’s music was highly controversial and subject to fierce criticism.

The ambitious extent of the Vespers and its compilation of the radical new styles that were to transform music, are what make the Vespers an important work and one that is widely revered by musicians.

Incidentally, the Vespers did not get Monteverdi that job in Rome. He had to stay in Mantua until Duke Vincenzo died in 1612. The next year his work impressed authorities at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, where Monteverdi’s style was welcomed. He was hired at St. Mark’s and remained in Venice until his death in 1643.

Evanne Brown first conducted the Vespers in 2010, on the 400th anniversary of its publication. She had sung it before and didn’t want the anniversary to go unmarked in Colorado. “So I just jumped in and did it,” she says, under the auspices of Boulder’s First United Methodist Church where she was choir director.

“People who sang the Vespers [that year] came up to me and said, ‘I want to do more of this,’” Brown explains. And so she formed Seicento, a choral ensemble specializing in the music of the 17th century. And this year she thought it was time for that specialized group to tackle the Vespers.

“This is a monumental piece, and I wanted Seicento to have this experience,” she says.

The Vespers are not often performed because the challenges they present are monumental. It’s a long work with virtuosic vocal parts and a choir that divides into up to 10 parts. In many ways, Monteverdi’s notation is only an outline of a finished product: the soloists are expected to add ornamentation, and the instrumental parts don’t indicate what instruments should play.

“It’s the jazz of the 17th century, in that we don’t have everything given to us,” Brown says. “We are expected to modify what’s on the page.”

To get the full impact of Monteverdi’s brilliant innovations, you would probably have to spend several months only hearing music from the Renaissance. Then you could hear how Monteverdi’s revolutionary music burst on the musical world of the 1600s. But Brown says you can easily appreciate the Vespers without prior study.

“You don’t have to know anything about the sackbut (a Renaissance-era trombone),” she says. “This is something that would appeal to anyone.

“It’s so rhythmically driving and has so many stunningly beautiful moments that it goes right to the heart of our musical soul.”

ON THE BILL: Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, Seicento Baroque Ensemble with Evanne Brown, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, First United Methodist, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder, 303- 442-3770. 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25, St. Paul Lutheran, 1600 Grant St., Denver, 303-839- 1432. Soloists’ Concert, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23, St. Paul Lutheran, 1600 Grant St., Denver, 303-839-1432. Tickets: 720-301-7747 or seicentobaroque. org/Tickets-Donate.html.

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