Chicago Classical Review » » Apollo’s Fire sparks with exuberant version of Monteverdi’s “Vespers”

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jeannette Sorrell directed Apollo’s Fire in Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 Sunday afternoon at Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston. Photo: S. Keenan

It’s been a really good fall in Chicago for baroque and before music.

Last month, Music of the Baroque opened its season with an excellent rendition of Handel’s oratorio Jephthah. Haymarket Opera followed a few days later with a worthy production of Monteverdi’s epic L’incoronazione di Poppea.

On Sunday, Apollo’s Fire did its part for Monteverdi with an exuberant rendition of the composer’s 1610 Vespers. Enhanced by terrific solo vocals and led by Jeannette Sorrell with signature vitality and effervescence, the performance at Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston kicked off Chicago’s second season in style for the Cleveland-based baroque ensemble.

Monteverdi Vespers of the Blessed Virgin is one of the rare creations where you can experience the evolution of the history of music in real time. The 90-minute work moves from the High Renaissance of its cantorial antiphons and danceable orchestral interludes to the vocal and instrumental virtuosity of the Baroque, with Monteverdi’s freely expressive vocal writing anticipating Bach’s Passions to come.

The authentic school is probably correct in saying that the Vespers was originally performed solo (and recorded that way by a generation of historically-minded conductors, including Andrew Parrott and others). But scientific precision aside, this sort of forensic minimalist approach can often result in an ascetic and, frankly, rather dry listening experience over an extended period of time.

In her program note, Sorrell presents a valid historical case that justifies the greater forces she employs in her edition of the work (19 singers and a chamber orchestra of 17 instruments).

But, more importantly, the art director made an utterly compelling statement musical argument in Apollo’s performance. The massed forces combined for resounding impact in the lively acoustics, but the vocals and orchestra were deftly balanced by Sorrell throughout. The varied colors of Apollo’s period cornets, recorders and theorbos offered careful variety and timbral contrasts.

Sometimes in these big ensemble passages – especially at the beginning – you sometimes wanted more dynamic contrast and nuances. But the choir sang in resplendent voices, and the performance gained emotional depth as it unfolded.

The polish and dedication of Sorrell and the soloists – vocal and instrumental – was unassailable. As the performance climaxed with the huge final Magnificat, Sorrell also accelerated rapid scene changes with solo singers placed in the high pulpit and instrumental soloists standing. Theatrical excesses were largely avoided, though concertmaster Alan Choo’s Nigel Kennedy-esque gyrations in his violin solos came close.

Tenor Jacob Perry was among Monteverdi’s vocal soloists Vespers.

As distinctive as the orchestra’s contributions are, as a whole and individually, it is the marvelous vocalism of an array of top-flight singers that has made it a Vespers distinguished performance. In addition to bringing a monastic gravitas to the antiphons and cantorial oratios, the singers shone in their solo moments.

Jacob Perry was first among equals. The strength of his tenor in the opening solo instantly made him sit up straight (and stop worrying about sitting issues and potential parking tickets). Perry offered an ideal blend of power and tonal smoothness in “Nigra Sum” and the “Duo Seraphim” (fellow tenors Steven Caldicott Wilson and Haitham Haider eerily echoing Perry’s vibrato exactly in the latter).

Soprano Erica Schuller, who sang the title role in Haymarket’s Poppea, did a virtual operatic love scene with “Pulchra Es” singing radiantly and with pristine tone and expressive devotion to her soprano sister Molly Netter. Other notable solo moments came with Wilson’s beautiful rendition of “Audi Coelum” and Andrea Walker’s pure-toned rendition of “Sancta Maria.”

This was Apollo’s Fire’s fifth performance of this massive work in just over a week (the first four in Ohio). Yet under Sorrell’s attentive and engaging direction there was not the slightest hint of routine, it all involved tackling the score with admirable polish and enthusiasm.

Apollo’s Fire will perform Handel Messiah 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9 at First Presbyterian Church in Evanston.

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