Monteverdi: Bridging a divide in music
LENOX -- Listen to Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi's 1610 "Vespero della beata vergine," and you can literally hear a changing of the musical guard from the Renaissance to the Baroque period happening in real time.
Often referred to as the "Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary," the vocal and orchestral composition is derived from the "vespers" or evening prayers that are part of the Liturgy of the Hours, daily prayers in the Catholic Church that consist of psalms, hymns and readings. With the Renaissance ending and the Baroque period beginning at roughly the year 1600, Monteverdi's piece, which was commissioned by the Mantua court, bridges stylistic divides between music of the late 16th and early 17th century.
"This piece is significant because you can hear instruments that had never been heard before, like cornettos and sackbuts, which are precursors to the trombone," said Andrea Goodman, founder and director of the Berkshire-based Cantilena Chamber Choir. "It is this real show piece, a tour de force."
Berkshire audiences can hear Monteverdi's landmark work for themselves when Goodman's choir performs the piece with early music ensemble Cambridge Concentus at Trinity Church on Sunday at 3 p.m.
"This [piece] is a culmination of every technique that had ever been used, and is looking at the future of what is to come," Goodman said.
Goodman has worked as a director and conductor for countless groups, from the annual summer Saratoga Choral Festival to choirs at Skidmore College and New York University. She decided to start the Berkshire choir back in 2004, after noticing that there was a void for classically trained singers who were looking to be challenged by repertoire different from what was offered by other area choirs.
In the nine seasons that the choir has been active, Goodman said that she has been fortunate to work with versatile singers, many of whom are instrumentalists themselves.
Goodman said this makes many of them good sight readers, which comes in handy for learning tricky material written in languages with which not every member of the group is familiar.
Goodman said it doesn't get much better than Monteverdi. Born in 1567, Monteverdi came of age as the Renaissance was ending, and died in 1643, right in the midst of the Baroque period.
While a composer who influenced countless musical greats who followed him, Monteverdi remains obscure to the general public.
"He's one of those composers whose dates are very inconvenient, a bit like Beethoven who lived in both the Classic and Romantic eras of music. Monteverdi spanned changes in culture and musical expression," said Jeremy Yudkin, chair and professor of musicology in the department of musicology at Boston University's School of Music.
Yudkin, whose wife performs in the choir, will give a pre-concert lecture at 2 p.m.
In the same way that Beethoven was responsible for many of the changes in music that he was living through, Monteverdi shaped both the music and the surrounding culture of his time, Yudkin said.
Yudkin said Monteverdi moved away from the "otherworldly" polyphony -- defined as music that contains two or more simultaneous parts of independent melody -- of someone like Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, to "a much more full-blooded approach to human emotions with personal kinds of expressions."
Yudkin said Monteverdi's influence had a trickle-down effect. Without Monteverdi, there would never have been Baroque composers like Antonin Viveldi, which in turn meant that there would not have been a musical titan like Johann Sebastian Bach, Yudkin said.
"His influence was enormous, and served to bring instrumental music on par with vocal music," Yudkin said. "Vocal music was always considered the pre-eminent expression of the human voice, but Monteverdi understood the expressive potential of instruments."
For David Kjar, co-artistic director of Cambridge Concentus, the opportunity to perform Monteverdi's work offers the chance to explore a composer who remains a little mysterious.
"There is something so mysterious about Monteverdi's language for many of us as listeners and musicians," Kjar said. "It's very attractive and feels like a foreign language."
For Kjar, who co-founded the group six years ago in order to give musicians in the early stages of their careers more performance opportunities, the magic of Monteverdi's music rests in its status as timeless work that is difficult to categorize.
"The work is just early enough that it draws on a much older harmonic language, but late enough that it somehow feels modern," Kjar said. "This piece has so much color and variety. You don't have to be an expert to enjoy it."
What: Vespro Della Beata Vergine by Claudio Monteverdi
Who: Cantilena Chamber Choir and Cambridge Concentus
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Trinity Church, 88 Walker St., Lenox
Tickets: $30 (children free)
How: www.cantilenchoir.org; (518) 791-0185; at the door