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A Magnificent Monteverdi

American Bach Soloists

Jan. 29-Feb. 1

Major anniversaries of a famous composer’s birth or death often occasion great fanfare, yet such honors are seldom accorded the anniversary of the publication of an individual piece. The year 2010 presents a notable exception, marking the 400th anniversary of the first printed edition of Claudio Monteverdi’s masterful Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610). This year’s first local commemoration, and likely one of the finest to be heard all year, comes courtesy of American Bach Soloists, which presents this masterwork in four performances Jan. 29–Feb. 1 in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Davis.

By any standard, the Monteverdi Vespers is a crowning achievement in musical history. Blending psalms, hymns, Magnificats, and other liturgical elements with paraliturgical motets and a sonata, Monteverdi harnesses a remarkably eclectic stylistic palette, from plainchant to elaborate counterpoint, in an exceptional fusion of tradition and innovation. The scoring is equally impressive, calling for seven solo vocalists (covered by three singers in ABS’ production), a rich panoply of instrumentalists, and a choir that divides into as many as 10 parts. Although vexing historical questions linger about where, when, and how this music was performed during the composer’s time, there can be no doubt that his Vespers was conceived as music meant to impress.

Not surprisingly, Monteverdi’s flashy instrumental and vocal solos tend to grab the lion’s share of attention. But choral music anchors the Vespers in many ways, with all the traditional Vespers elements (psalms, hymn, Magnificat) handed to this ensemble. For Sam Smith, a five-year veteran of the American Bach Choir, ABS’ stellar choral ensemble, the chance to perform the Vespers during this anniversary season is singularly exciting. “This work is a milestone in the evolution of liturgical music, of Baroque rhetoric and style, and in vocal writing,” he notes. “Not only does the festivity of the occasion of its 400th anniversary lend appeal, but also it is probably no exaggeration to say that every singer dreams of performing this work at a high artistic standard. And, with the chance to do so in an intimate ensemble, as doubtless was the case in the original premiere, with just 30 musicians on stage, where each person makes a vital contribution, what could be better?”

A primary challenge in putting together an outstanding performance involves limited rehearsal time, as the chorus gets merely three rehearsals to nail their parts. Outside preparation beforehand is a given, but Smith says the singers’ long-standing familiarity with one another, and with Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas’ nuanced rehearsal technique, are also key. “It is a combination of limited, intense rehearsal; collective institutional memory; and total commitment during concertizing that results in the high level of technical excellence, surefooted interpretation, and heartfelt, passionate performing that audiences have come to expect from an ABS concert,” Smith observes.

Along with this hard work comes great pride in the opportunity to collaborate with Thomas and the other ABS performers. “ABS is the finest group I work with,” Smith declares. “This is simply the best music I make each year, and each set we do is a highlight of my musical season. The size of the ensemble is congenial — small enough so that each participant makes a difference, yet large enough to feel the horsepower that only a choir with orchestra can deliver. But what sets it apart is a rare combination of high caliber musicianship, ensemble collegiality, and the charismatic leadership of Maestro Jeffrey Thomas.”

Joseph Sargent holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University and teaches at the University of San Francisco.