Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Monteverdi Vespers at St. Ignatius

The Monteverdi Vespers is one of my favorite pieces of music. I'm always happy to have the opportunity to hear it, so on Saturday night I showed up at St. Ignatius to get a ticket for this performance featuring the San Francisco Choral Society. There was a bit of chaos at the door, as they were late in opening the doors to start seating people. I also couldn't help noticing the long & slow-moving line for the women's rest room. I guess churches don't necessarily have ample facilities.

There was a large chorus of about 150, which probably is not historically accurate. The orchestra, on the other hand, had 1 player to a part, which probably is historically accurate. Authentic numbers or not, the balance came out fine. Before the performance, one of the musicians gave a brief explanation of the Baroque instruments being played. Somehow this seemed both instructive & unnecessary.

I really liked hearing this piece with such a large chorus. The chorus didn't sound particularly loud, perhaps because of the size of the venue. The conductor, Robert Geary, did a good job of cueing & keeping things together, but overall the sound was a bit blurry. I think the chorus could have made a much bigger impression simply by singing with more dynamic range than they did.

The conductor mainly focused on traffic management for the chorus & then left the smaller ensemble numbers to the individual performers. Sometimes he didn't even conduct these numbers at all. The orchestra & the soloists were all very capable, so this didn't seem like a bad decision, but I think overall the performance would have benefitted from a little more rhythmic incisiveness.

There were 8 soloists, & the tenor Brian Staufenbiel seemed to get the most work. He looked like the happiest singer you could meet. He was all smiles whenever he wasn't actually singing. By the end of performance I was feeling like he was my best buddy.

The singers who stood out for me were the soprano, Shawnette Sulker, & another tenor, Brian Thorsett. Sulker has a solid, almost steely, voice. Thorsett has a clear, high voice, & he could also summon a big sound when he wanted. His duets with Staufenbiel were great. Monteverdi has the voices singing so close that the effect is quite sensual.

A well-rehearsed children's chorus of 30 performed the soprano line in the Sancta Maria from memory. They dispatched their part with such confidence & accuracy that you could tell this was a group of old pros. After their number, I heard a man nearby me cheer in a whisper, "Yeah!"

The performance had an intermission, which seems to be the usual practise, but I'm not sure that I approve. I also did not approve of the audience's cool response at the end. The soloists only came out for 1 curtain call, which didn't seem enough.


dave's cycle said...


As a member of the Choral Society that sang the Vespers I thank you for coming to hear the concert and for your thoughtful comments.
I hope that you were there on Saturday evening because the choristers felt much better about that performance than about the first one.
Most of us were unfamiliar with the piece before, and most, I think, like myself were doubtful at the outset. Bob Geary took a straw poll during the warmup to the Saturday performance, and 85% of us indicated that we would like to perform it again. For me and my fellow second basses, the Saturday evening performance was a thrilling triumph.

Sandra said...

Hello Alex.
I enjoyed your review of the Monteverdi concert. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit that I usually sing with SFCS but I did not sing in that performance. I was in the audience on Friday night.

I want to call to your attention that hearing music at St. Ignatius depends so much on where you are seated. My experience has been that the sound is best around the center crosswise aisle and to the rear. Not on the sides.

Regarding conducting the soloists, it is quite common for them to sing without cues from the conductor. If the orchestra is in tempo then it is not necessary.

Keep on blogging. I enjoyed your close attention to the performance and your insightful comments.