Monteverdi Vespers: Concert Review

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Monteverdi VespersFlow placidly amid the noise and haste.

Downtown L.A. is certainly an epicenter for 21st century hustle and bustle. But inside of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with its futuristic façade, one can find an acoustical oasis from the dissonant sounds of traffic, construction, boom boxes and the like, far from the madding crowd. To paraphrase Max Ehrmann’s splendiferous poem, Desiderata, within this vestibule of a more genteel culture one can “Flow placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in sacred music.”

With its performance of four century old vocal and instrumental compositions, the Concert Hall became a sort of time machine on Nov. 18, as the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra presented the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi’s seldom played 1610 Vespers of the Blessed Virgin. Vespers is a form of religious music derived from Catholic prayers and Monteverdi’s scarcely heard hymns were serenely sung by the aptly named Master Chorale’s 40-ish sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, stylishly clad in gowns and tuxedos, conducted by music director Grant Gershon. Eight soloists alternated with groups of singers, males with females, moving on and off the stage and around the interior of the Disney, even climbing up beside the organ in the nosebleed seats, as if to be closer to the god they were praising in Latin. (The Vespers’ texts were translated in Performances Magazine, a program guide given to each ticket buyer.)

The Chorale was accompanied by the Orchestra, which likewise varied in size over the course of the 90-ish minute Vespers, ranging up to 13 musicians. The baroque band leaned towards the strings, with two violinists, a violone-ist and a cello-ist, and most intriguingly and entrancingly for one accustomed to 21st century instrumentation, an arch-lute and a theorbo, played by John Schneiderman and Daniel Zuluaga. The latter two are long necked plucked stringed instruments; with their round deep backs, lutes were all the rage during the Renaissance, while theorbos were popularized in the late 16th century.

Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra also includes a portative organ (Ian Pritchard tickled the proverbial ivories) and a brass section consisting of three cornetto plus three sackbut players. The latter is a Renaissance/Baroque era trombone with a telescopic slide that allows for a more chromatic range of notes.

The combination of the Chorale and Orchestra produced a mellifluous, transcendent, soaring, sublime sound. The tranquil tonalities and harmonies transported one’s soul either back in time, before modernism’s harsh sound and fury, or even towards the heavens. Mezzo Soprano Janelle DeStafano’s solos were particularly lovely. Indeed, the music’s delicate beauty made one feel that the “house of the lord” they sang about was right there in the Concert Hall — that is, if one believes music is the laughter of the lord.

Interestingly, some of the Vespers’ lyrics are sexually suggestive. For instance, in Nigra Sum the sensuous words translate as: “I am a black but beautiful daughter of Jerusalem, So the king loved me and led me into his bedroom and said to me: ‘Arise, my love, and come away… the time of pruning has come.’”

Well, who’s to say what’s sacred and what’s profane? No “ifs,” “ands” or “buts” about it: How splendid to hear this all too rare rendition, with sackbuts, a lute and theorbo played about 400 years after their heydays, long after heavy metal rockers and hip-hoppers have replaced strolling minstrels and troubadours. As Desiderata counsels: “Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.” These age old instruments, along with Monteverdi, still offer repose and solace in order to soothe the seething souls of our high anxiety age.

DeStefano returns with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, conducted by Music Director Grant Gershon, to perform another holiday season program entitled Rejoice! that includes the complete 1723 version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat and Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria. Bach’s motet Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden opens the performance. Gershon and KUSC host Alan Chapman participate in ListenUp!, the pre-concert talk ,at 6:00 p.m., free to ticketholders, followed by the program on: Sunday, December 16, 2012, at 7:00 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 South Grand Avenue at First Street in downtown Los Angeles. For information: (213) 972-7282; www.lamc.org.

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Ed Rampell About Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film critic/historian and author named after Edward R. Murrow, in honor of the broadcaster's exposé of Senator Joe McCarthy. As a film critic and historian Rampell co-wrote Made in Paradise: Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas and Pearl Harbor in the Movies and Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States. He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc., Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, and is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal.