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Red Priest Vespers

On Saturday night, two local early music groups -- the Bach Sinfonia and Chantry -- joined forces in an all-Vivaldi program, at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda. The organizing principle was an interesting one musicologically, to attempt to reconstruct a solemn Sunday Vespers service as it might have been heard in the chapel of the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, the Venetian home for abandoned children where Vivaldi was employed for much of his life. The unwanted babies left at the Pietà were illegitimate or abandoned for other reasons, sometimes brought there by their mothers or rescued by good-hearted Venetians. Boys were allowed to stay only until adolescence, but girls raised in the Pietà, if they chose not to join convents or marry, had the option of living there for the rest of their lives. Many of those who had musical talent did just that, preferring to have a musical career playing in the orchestra or singing in the chorus. In fact, since they were officially without family, the residents were known by a first name often accompanied by the instrument they played or their voice part. The place functioned almost like a convent, led by a "prioress" elected by the residents, but its rule was musical rather than monastic.

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Joan Reinthaler, Bach Sinfonia and Chantry (Washington Post, May 22)
Nearly everyone who visited Venice as a tourist in the 18th century heard one of the performances of the ladies of the Pietà. Jean-Jacques Rousseau spent an eventful 18 months in Venice, of which he gives a bizarre and -- how shall I say it -- well-detailed account (including his visits with Venetian prostitutes) in Book VII of his autobiography, The Confessions. He describes not only hearing the Sunday Vespers services but actually meeting the performers, who were normally hidden from the audience's view by a grill:
M. le Blond presented to me, one after the other, these celebrated female singers, of whom the names and voices were all with which I was acquainted. Come, Sophia,- she was horrid. Come, Cattina,- she had but one eye. Come, Bettina,- the small-pox had entirely disfigured her. Scarcely one of them was without some striking defect. Le Blond laughed at my surprise; however, two or three of them appeared tolerable; these never sung but in the choruses; I was almost in despair. During the collation we endeavored to excite them, and they soon became enlivened; ugliness does not exclude the graces, and I found they possessed them. I said to myself, they cannot sing in this manner without intelligence and sensibility, they must have both; in fine, my manner of seeing them changed to such a degree that I left the house almost in love with each of these ugly faces. I had scarcely courage enough to return to vespers. But after having seen the girls, the danger was lessened. I still found their singing delightful; and their voices so much embellished their persons that, in spite of my eyes, I obstinately continued to think them beautiful.
Red Priest Vespers, Bach Sinfonia and Chantry, Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, May 20, 2006There were no one-eyed or pockmarked musicians on Saturday night, but there was lots of Vivaldi's music to be heard and a nearly full set of pews to hear it. Based on recent research by British Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot, the two groups assembled the components of a Vespers service -- some in plainchant and some in Vivaldi's choral settings -- with a few extras added. The performance was sound, generally quite fine, although at other times deficient in terms of intonation (especially among the instruments) and strength of production. The last all-Vivaldi program I heard was an extraordinary performance by the REBEL Ensemble at Library of Congress, which I reviewed last February. In that context, this local rendition suffered by comparison, but it was still enjoyable.

Chantry sang plainchant whenever there were parts of the Gregorian Vespers not set by Vivaldi (which were, in some form, what he himself used in such a case). The opening versicle was sung by the treble voices as the singers entered the sanctuary. Strictly speaking, this was unnecessary, since the performance omitted many other parts of the Vespers service, but the effect was solemn. The other plainchant pieces were psalms -- with the ferial antiphons, although none of the Vivaldi psalm settings or the Magnificat had accompanying antiphons. The intonation and purity of sound in the plainchant singing was admirable, although it felt somewhat lethargic. (For the record, it is traditional to omit the intonatio part of the formula for psalms, beginning directly on the reciting tone with the second and all subsequent verses. Canticle tones, like those for the Magnificat, normally have the intonatio for each verse.) Most mysterious were the extraordinarily long pauses after the mediant cadence of each verse in both chanted psalms. Perhaps no one singer wanted to start things off after the break in the middle, but the effect was to destroy the sense of the writing of the psalms, two phrases that say essentially the same thing in two different ways.

The Vivaldi vocal works included one truly great piece, one of his four settings of the Magnificat (RV 610), charming music that I know from having performed it. This piece elicited the strongest performance from the musicians, including solo vocal contributions from members of Chantry and fine work from guest soprano Jennifer Ellis. The other choral psalm and canticle on the second half -- In exitu Israel (RV 604) and Laudate Dominum omnes gentes (RV 606) -- are homophonic settings that are not musically all that interesting. If something had to be cut from this two-hour program, they would have been my suggestion. By contrast, the first psalm of Vespers, Dixit Dominus, received a charming setting in Vivaldi's RV 595 (not the double-choir version). This provided some good opportunities for Jennifer Ellis's rich, broad soprano voice, with good agility and breath support in this difficult music.

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A. Vivaldi, Gloria, motets, cantatas, Emma Kirkby, Academdy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood
At the end of the first half, however, Ellis was slightly overmatched by Vivaldi's incredibly difficult solo motet, Nulla in mundo pax sincera, RV 630. Make no mistake, Jennifer Ellis can sing, but I think that the tempo of the fast sections, particularly the concluding Alleluia, was just too brisk, and the clarity of all those runs suffered. It is probably depressing for any singer to compare herself to Emma Kirkby, but her recording of this pair of opera arias with an intervening recitative shows that a slower tempo can be just as exciting and much clearer. Meanwhile, did Vivaldi really write this "motet" for a sacred setting like Vespers? It's probably impossible to know for sure, but the anonymous text (for example, "But with a furtive touch of the lips, a man maddened by love will often kiss as if licking honey") rang rather strangely next to the psalms. It was perhaps a warning to his favorite Pietà ladies, not to leave his ensemble for married life.

The two instrumental pieces on the program, the sonata and sinfonia "al Sancto Sepolcro," are not quite what Bach Sinfonia music director Daniel Abraham described them as ("for a holy place or space"). The title means "at the Holy Sepulchre," probably placing these pieces in Holy Week. One theory is that they were composed during Vivaldi's stay in Vienna in the 1730s (he may have gone as far as Prague), where there was a ceremony involving a replica of the Holy Sepulchre. Bach Sinfonia had their most solid playing in the sinfonia (a piece the REBEL Ensemble played last year), especially the slow and mysterious opening fraught with daring chromatic shifts.

The Bach Sinfonia has announced its lineup for next season: a period instrument performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in November, a Baroque chamber music program with Barbara Hollinshead in February, a complete Handel's Water Music in March, and a Baroque Bouquet of Bach, Handel, and Pachelbel in May. Chantry has one more performance this summer, on June 10 (music by Palestrina and Monteverdi), as part of the Washington Early Music Festival.

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