Apollo’s Fire

Two weeks ago the all-male Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra drew a throng that filled cavernous Bailey Hall at Cornell University. One source close to the band revealed in a response to my column , Marsalis and his Men,  that Wynton “is actually holding one or two[women in reserve. Just in case the heat does go on.”

If that evening was a retro exercise in macho music-making, then last night was ladies’ night in Bailey Hall. Or it would have been, had Cleveland’s baroque orchestra, Apollo’s Fire, come with in its most typical, predominantly female lineup, to play 18th-century century orchestral works. Instead of the dark suits and close-cropped look of the manly JLCO, it would have been long skirts and lacy tops, and lots of hair, especially the fiery red curls from the inspired head of the group’s founding music director, Jeannette Sorrell. God of the sun and of music, Apollo has certainly lit his fire under these women, who play with an intensity and precision that is rare in any ensemble. In contrast to the absolute gender uniformity of JLCO, Apollo’s Fire does have one guy in the 18th-century orchestral version of the group, the energetic René Schiffer.

These rather obvious observations on the demographics of the JLCO and Apollo’s Fire might seduce one into further ruminations on the possible links between the gender of the groups and the musical qualities produced.  It’s a fool’s errand, but nonetheless I’ll venture that Apollo’s Firedraws the listener in warmly, though no less impressively, than does the self-conscious strutting of the JLCO. Apollo’s Fire can swagger too, as one can see in their dramatic performance of Vivaldi’s La Folia. But it seems of a different sort than, say, the Spaghetti Western shoot-‘em up approach of another early music band, the Italians of Il Giardino Armonico.  Their leader, Giovanni Antonini can even wield the tiny sopranino recorder like a Colt 45.

All of these claims, collapsing music and gender, would probably fall apart if subjected to a blind-fold listening test.  But that’s the point:  live music is a visual act as a much as a sonic one.

In place of the girl group version of Apollo’s Fire were lots of men in the band for Thursday night’s program of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. There were tuxedoed men of the choir of about twenty, and the tail-coated tenor and bass soloists, two theorbo players, and the three sackbut players—two Peters and a Paul. The core group of strings were women—except for the above-mentioned Schiffer, whose grey hair, goatee, ruffled shirt and exuberant playing gave him the look of a musketeer who’s laid down his rapier for a cello. Mimicking the ranges of the human voice, the manly sackbuts below were topped by two female recorder players and two cornettists. A curved piece of wood or ivory with finger holes, the cornetto demands a very high price to extract its extraordinary beauty, so fragile and so ecstatic at the same time. To listen as Kiri Tollaksen and Alexandra Opsahl soar up through the instrument’s trumpet-like range and glide through arcs of rapid ornamentation is to experience a kind of sympathetic euphoria in the joy of their performance. It is the closest music can come to flight. Still, the violinists Julie Andrijeski and Johanna Novom were this pair’s equal in buoyant virtuosity.

Monteverdi is credited with inventing a new style of music in which, as one reads in many a music textbook, the old rules of counterpoint and harmony could be violated in order to express the texts more vividly. This revolutionary inversion of the relationship between words and music marks, in these same textbooks, the beginning of the baroque. Monteverdi’s Vespers combines old in new, revolutionary and traditional. It is massively ambitious piece of liturgical music, and may have served as kind may have been a kind of advertisement of Monteverdi’s unmatched range and expressive powers, talents he could bring to the top post in ecclesiastical music in Italy, that of maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice.  Current scholarly opinion holds that the Vespers were in fact composed for a princely wedding in Mantua, and these origins allowed Sorrell to use more modest forces than those Monteverdi had at his disposal when he duly won the San Marco post three years after the publication of his Vespers. The collection encompasses intimate reflections in which the text can be sung with great nuance and expressivity, to massive demonstrations of Monteverdi’s mastery of full polyphonic textures. There are also brilliant instrumental exhibitions, especially in the Sonata on Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis, in which the high voices intone the long notes of the chant over the lively figures of the violins and cornettos.

Through these ninety-minutes of music, Monteverdi makes abundant use of the Gregorian melodies to which vesper texts, centered around five psalms interleaved with four motets and culminating in the Magnificat (the Canticle of Mary), were chanted.  These chants resound in long notes, as Monteverdi weaves his endlessly inventive figures around them. Forcing himself to obey the course of these ancient melodies, Monteverdi not only shows the timeless durability of the chants but his own inventiveness. Pious respect becomes a vessel for compositional bravura.

A lot has changed over the last four hundred. Women were forbidden from making music in San Marco. Why not let them add their talents to liturgical works as well? The virtuosic castrati are extinct, so there is hardly another choice these days.

The other biggest difference between now and then is the venue. This is music for the church and its architecture—a big acoustic chamber stuffed with religious art. At one end of this spectrum is the endless reverberation and mystical golden interior of San Marco. At the other end are the sober gray walls and echo-less acoustic of Bailey Hall and so many other modern concert spaces.

We are now used to seeing works of religious art taken from European churches and displayed in museums at eye level.  A Bailey Hall performance of the Vespers represents a similar kind of appropriation. Yet the Monteverdian sensibility seems to bridge the secular and the sacred emerges right from the start of this piece in the opening versicle Deus in adjutorium meum intende (O God, come to my assistance) in which the composer builds the religious text around the same fanfare opening of his seminal opera, Orfeo, composed three years before the Vespers. It is as if Monteverdi is announcing not only that he has recently invented opera but he is also reinventing church music.

The modern resuscitation of these Vespers is made possible through life-giving instruments and the  rhetorical singing style known to Monteverdi. Under Sorrell’s baton this music acquires a huge palette of emotional registers and rhythmic subtleties. Apollo’s Fire  made commercial recording of the Vespers back in 1999, and it is clearly a work dear to Sorrell’s heart, and engraved in her brain. She is an excellent conductor: clear and precise, especially in the complicated choral passages; her movements also express a sense of the fluid metrical proportions and harmonic and melodic shapes of this kaleidoscopic, avant-garde work of 1610.

But it is the performance of gender in a secular space that led to some bizarre and exclusively modern incongruities. These Vespers are about an-hour-and-a-half—not too long for an audience to sit through without a break.  Yet there was an intermission, a cleaver down the middle of inseparable ritual and the musical shape of the work. If concerts and football games have half times, why not Vespers, too?

All knew this was a concert, not an evening religious service, but the unsettling dissonance between the secular and sacred was even clearer once things began. As has become common practice in the secular performance of Monteverdi’s religious music, the program started with a procession of the conductor and soloists from the back of the hall with drummer alongside beating the march. This staging attempts to imbue the proceedings with majesty, evoking a time when Dukes ruled Italy and paid for such sumptuous musical productions.

After the group had reached the stage the bass soloist then launched into the opening verse, after which few hands in the audience began to clap their approval. Were these hands trying to assert the primacy of art over religion right from the start, or was it the automatic response of concert-going behavior?  This contest between sacred solemnity and secular enjoyment continued through the evening with a slowly increasing number of clappers expressing their enthusiasm after particularly moving or impressive performances. Mine is not a snobbish comment about uneducated concertgoers not realizing when you are and aren’t supposed to do.What I mean is Vespers in a concert hall is a fish out of water.

I had to add my clapping to that of the secularists after tenor Zachary Wilder’s moving performance of the first motet, Nigra sum (I am a black but beautiful daughter of Jerusalem), accompanied by a single theorbo, that outsized descendant of Apollo’s lyre. Wilder’s voice is clear and sure, and his performance of this beautiful text was so speech-like and direct, yet made so urgent with his commanding control of the difficult Monteverdian ornaments, that he shrunk the vastness of Bailey Hall into an intimate music room of the Gonzaga Palace.

But the next motet (Pulchra es) for two sopranos was the most provocative of the evening. The wonderful singers Terri Richter and Nell Snaidas took to the front of the stage in their long concert dresses with naked shoulders and ample décolletage and gave an unforgettable rendition of

Monteverdi’s extravagantly sensual setting of this text from the Song of Songs:

“You are beautiful my love,
sweet and comely daughter of Jerusalem.
You are beautiful, my love,
terrible as the sharp lines of a military camp.
Turn your eyes from me,
because they have put me to flight.”

The pair did the motet as a kind operatic scene with the singers interacting with one another, turning their eyes toward and away the other singer, according to the text and music, their music lines intertwining and disentangling with the sometimes-frightening raptures of love.  Admittedly, it’s far more absurd to try and restrain the eros of the Song of Songs in the straightjacket of chaste Christian allegory, than to embrace its more obvious and, indeed more powerful, message. But that doesn’t make a same-sex love scene in the midst of Vespers for the Virgin any less shocking. A Vespers motet became an illicit operatic moment. Monteverdi was a pioneer of erotic music, as his madrigals so abundantly show. In an age of anti-headscarf mania in Europe, watching and listening two women transform Monteverdi’s great work of religious art into an ode to sensual love almost took on historic import. I won’t say I wasn’t excited musically and otherwise by this, and here’s betting that Monteverdi would have been more than a little entranced. But a visit from the Inquisition the morning after that luscious Vespers would have quieted his ardor.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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