Monteverdi Vespers diary 1. Anticipation

I had to leave last year’s choir AGM early because of childcare requirements, but I didn’t really expect to be missing anything much. So I was very surprised later that evening when a friend messaged me to say that our baroque concert for 2017 would be Monteverdi Vespers with Robert Hollingworth of I Fagiolini conducting. It’s probably a good thing I wasn’t at the meeting, as it meant I was able to do all my excited bouncing in the privacy of my own living room. It turned out to be even better than that first report – not only would Robert be conducting, but we’d also have his ensemble I Fagiolini as soloists, with the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble playing.

There was then a flurry of organisational emails, as we got to grips with the logistical and financial commitments we were taking on, with a lot of encouragement from I Fagiolini’s management. I decided that it would be good if we could have an official publicity announcement early in the new year, to blast the news out on our website, email and social media, which then meant begging the rest of the choir to keep it secret until we had everything in place, and my Christmas holidays were happily spent on design work and reading up on Monteverdi so that I could write publicity blurbs.

The grand canal in Venice, looking towards Santa maria della Salute
One of my Venetian holiday snaps

Even though the Vespers were written in Mantua, they have become strongly associated with Venice where Monteverdi ended up working (the Vespers were part of his job application to St Mark’s), so I wanted a poster image that alluded to Venice, without just using an obvious picture of the city. By a nice coincidence, I’d actually finally made my first trip there last summer, and one thing that had really struck me was the whiteness of the light on the sea: there was the first view of the magical city in morning light as the plane landed, and then later when we were there, I had a lovely few moments standing at the end of the pointed tip of land just past Santa Maria della Salute looking out across the water. That remarkable luminosity seemed to fit with the dazzling light of Monteverdi’s music, so I found a photo of sunlight on Venetian water, and added my own souvenir of Venice, a glass star, for Ave Maris Stella. (My son and I had fun creating the water effect on the glass with a bowl of water and a torch – maybe I could have photoshopped it, but doing it for real was more fun).

Things then went quiet until last week at choir when we finally got our hands on the score for a first sing through, in preparation for a workshop with Robert Hollingworth. It was at this point that I really began to understand the amount of research and scholarship that go into a serious performance of the Vespers. The esteemed editor Clifford Barlett, whose scores we are using, has produced different colour coded editions with various transposition options and a plethora of footnotes. (We’ll be using the Red edition but the copies aren’t ready yet, so we temporarily have the Blue Vespers… and there is also a Green version. It reminds me of Andrew Lang’s fairy tale books). We altos had a moment of panic looking at the Blue score before we saw the little 8 under the clef telling us to sing down an octave: with, for me, the result being that I then tried to read the notes as bass clef. But we have three pages of just one chord for the opening acclamation, which I’m sure I will appreciate in the concert as a time to settle down.

Taking the rehearsal, Francesca, our assistant conductor, was regularly consulting emailed instructions from Robert about tempi and furiously working out note divisions on the fly: the beat regularly changes between double and triple time, with the relationships between the two being another source of intense interpretative debate. I’m sure we’ll learn more from Robert tomorrow about this, but the immediately noticeable effect of the way he’s going to do it is that the triple time sections are much more relaxed than on some of the recordings we’re used to.

This first rehearsal gave me a preliminary indication of how much thought has to go into preparing the Vespers – far more than the big Handel or Bach works, which is an important thing for us to understand. But there was magic too, because through all the wrong notes, wrong counting and general chaos, I could hear in my head the sonorous Venetian brass that underpins so many of the choral movements and so could catch flashes of the glory that we’ll be working towards.