'Tis the month of December, and all through the Bay
The people with bank accounts in disarray
Remember that Music, their childhood friend
Still is performed by groups end on end.
And as carols ring in holiday tones,
In Starbucks, on TV, and cellular phones,
They search for some tickets, to choirs even, Say?
Or to many a Nutcracker at the Ballet.
The symphonic concerts, all quickly-rehearsed,
Join choral processions, with audience-sung verse.
A warm, fuzzy feeling is enjoyed by all
And happy ensembles can now pay for Fall.
Vespers music by Venetian composer Giovanni Rigatti (1613-1648) formed the core of Magnificat’s version of the holiday concert. Warren Stewart drew the psalms and a Magnificat setting from a collection of Rigatti's Vespers psalms published in 1640. These psalms could be and probably were sung at any service in the church year when these psalms were appointed (Magnificat performed psalms 109, 110, 111, 112, and 116).
So Magnificat's "Christmas Vespers" concert was actually less seasonal than the title suggests. A Vespers service is a weekly (or daily) early evening service rare in modern churches. The basic service consists of the same five psalms and the Magnificat. (The Magnificat is a passage from Luke known as the “Song of Mary.” The Catholic Church shortened the service to two psalms in 1970.)
Stewart's ensemble interspersed a few chants, a motet, some organ music, and a few prayers appropriate to the Vespers service of Christmas day. There is nothing wrong with this; we just need to recognize it for what it is.
That said, I do not understand why Stewart went further and turned the concert into a church service. He implemented correct church [liturgical] order, using every single chant for the service, even those reserved for priests. In some modes of thought, chant is not music at all; rather, it is a way to amplify and elevate prayer, developed in an age before the megaphone. It would have been easy enough to present a concert of “Vespers music from a Venetian Christmas." This 20-something, single, non-Roman Catholic spending his Saturday night out on the town did not want to hear several minutes of chanted prayers at the end of a concert reminding me I'm a sinner. What a downer. All would have been better served had Stewart ended with the boisterous rousing Magnificat 'amen' — applause-ovation-cocktails. This sinner needed a double.
Baroque Italian Vespers is basically a sacred concert anyway. In Venice, it competed with the emerging public opera across the plaza. In other parts of Italy, where opera and secular concerts were banned, Vespers services functioned as a performative outlet for the populace. Through time, church music became more operatic (witness the Vespers of Alessandro Scarlatti, or for that matter, Mozart). Castrati and coloratura flourished. The ending prayers were a reminder you were still sitting in church — the Baroque equivalent of no flash photography.
In the Baroque period, the Magnificat developed certain conventions. At the words "sucepit Israel," Rigatti (like Bach, later) turns to the earlier style of Renaissance vocal polyphony. Another section of Rigatti's work, "fecit potentiam" could come right out of Monteverdi. The tenor duet in the opening psalm 109 reminded me of some fine Monteverdi duets.
Is any of the music on this concert for the ages? I identified two works as exceptional. The first is the Sixth Sonata by another Venetian, Massimilliano Neri (1615-1666), for five instruments with a thrilling slow middle section (not a Christmas piece). The second is Rigatti's motet "O suavissimum verbum," a compositional showpiece moving through every style of the period (again, not really a Christmas piece). This work seems to proclaim, "I can do anything as well as Monteverdi, look here." I was heartened to research the piece and find it included in several anthologies.
Fittingly, Stewart's virtuoso singers sounded exceptional. Bass Peter Becker sang quite loud in his numerous solo passages and adequately supported the ensemble singing. The other singers — Elise Figa, Jennifer Paulino, Paul Elliott, Chistopher LeCluyse, and Craig Lemming — could turn on a dime (although I would say the sopranos were stronger choral singers than soloists). I was particularly moved by tenor Paul Elliot's coloratura and lyricism in Rigatti's solo setting of Psalm 111, which was sung perfectly (but into his score).
This music is entertainment; the whole evening needed to be Lawrence Welked-up a bit. I often felt the vocalists were performing in some distant gallery or in a recording studio-authentic perhaps to the Early Music movement, but not the Christmas concert hall. The smile award went to concertmaster Rob Diggens. The instrumentalists evidently put much work into several sonatas by Neri (following the pre-1930s practice where vocal texts could be replaced by instrumental works, or versicles.) The band carefully planned bowings. One violinist would start up while other would begin down, thus separating the lines. All came together at the climaxes. Diggens' unison with second fiddler David Wilson at the end of the "Second Sonata for three instruments" was perfect. Even the double viols (lower-pitched string instrument) got something to do.
The resonant concert venue, St. Mark's Church in Berkeley, offers little stage area for favorable acoustic placement. You cannot place performers where they can be heard and seen at the same time, it must be one way or the other. Occasionally the strings overbalanced the vocalists. Nightly adjustment is always a particular challenge to groups performing in multiple venues on successive nights. This did not hold back tutti passages, where all achieved dramatic fortes and pauses in Rigatti's setting of psalm 116.
The audience far exceeded that of the much more musically important performance of a Stradella opera I had the fortune of hearing from this ensemble last July. Red sweaters were in abundance. Music of this period performed by the ideal performers Stewart hired is exceedingly beautiful and suitable to any season. I am happy so many people saw the moving performance.