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After a Decade, a Monteverdi Masterpiece Flies Free

"Tradition dictates that the musical calendar year ends, for most concertgoers, with Handel’s 'Messiah.' But 10 years ago, a plucky early-music ensemble rang in the New Year with an even older choral masterpiece, full of pomp, glitter and moments of deep contemplation.


"When Jolle Greenleaf, a soprano and the artistic director of Tenet, organized a performance of Monteverdi’s 'Vespro della Beata Vergine' ('Vespers of the Blessed Virgin') on Jan. 3, 2010, in New York, she meant for it to be a one-off event. After all, that year marked the 400th anniversary of the work, informally referred to as the 1610 Vespers.


"But Ms. Greenleaf’s production, with the musicians volunteering their work, attracted a crowd of 800 and the attention of critics. (James R. Oestreich, writing in The New York Times, called it 'quite simply terrific.')


"So the endeavor grew into an annual tradition, called the Green Mountain Project, in a riff on Monteverdi’s name. The performances were characterized by lithe phrasing and warm, clear sound. Textures were carefully balanced, with robust basses topped by airy trebles, including Ms. Greenleaf’s voice, piercing and true.


"Along the way, Ms. Greenleaf established Tenet as an independent force on the city’s early-music scene, among the most important outside of major institutions like Trinity Wall Street and the Juilliard School. And the group will have ample activities after this season’s performances of the 1610 Vespers, next Thursday and Friday at St. Jean Baptiste Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. These will be the final salvo of the Green Mountain Project, and Tenet’s first rendition of the Vespers without a conductor. A tour to Venice will follow, where the musicians will sing at Monteverdi’s grave and perform in churches across the city.


"Ms. Greenleaf spoke recently about Monteverdi, the special appeal of the 1610 Vespers and the emancipation of choral singers. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.


[New York Times]: Over the past 10 years, the Green Mountain Project has turned Monteverdi’s Vespers into an anchor of New York’s musical calendar. How did it begin?


[Jolle Greenleaf]: I started it out of a real sense of despair that I wasn’t going to perform this piece that I was madly in love with. I had gone through a major illness and had recently given birth to my daughter and wasn’t really being hired anywhere. So when we decided to do it, it felt like a gift. It was a big year with the 400th anniversary of the piece, and we wanted to put our stamp on it.


[NYT]: How did you put your stamp on it? What are the qualities you look for in the singers and instrumentalists you work with?


[JG]: When I listen to some of the older recordings, I think it was hard for people to understand how this music functioned best. Having large choirs sing this music — it’s hard to digest. Monteverdi really meant it to be sung one singer to a part, so you get this vivid clarity.


For the singers, it’s essential that they can offer a variety of sounds. A lot has to do with understanding strong and weak syllables and making sure that comes through in the singing. Monteverdi cared deeply about the text; for all the syllables to sound the same would create the wrong color palette.


With instrumentalists you want the same: They are essentially singing. If they match our strong and weak inflections on the syllables, they basically boost our sound, and our diction carries over.


[NYT]: What have you learned about Monteverdi over these years immersed in his music?


[JG]: It’s hard for us to know exactly what he was like. He could be a curmudgeon. He was obviously a masterful composer, no question. He had a very fun and light side that you can see in his work, as well as a deeply religious side. This piece uses everything he has on offer. You get so many aspects of his personality and his compositional style, all in one work.


[NYT]: Were you surprised by the popular success of this music? In New York in early January, right after the glut of “Messiah”?


[JG]: I’ve heard stories of people getting married after hearing this piece with their partner and deciding, “Oh, they understand the Monteverdi Vespers, I’m going to marry this person.” I find a lot of scientists and mathematicians are drawn to this music in a big way. If our world had the opportunity to hear it more, I think it could be as popular as “Messiah.” And I do see it being done more often now than in the decade before the anniversary of 2010. Clearly everybody got the bug.


[NYT]: What does it mean to you to bring this music to Venice?


[JG]: I felt like ending this project needed to be done in a way that really honored everything that everybody did over the years. It feels like the crowning glory — we are going to do it where Monteverdi flourished and was buried. But it’s a little crazy. There’s so many pieces to the organization. There are no cars; there are so many rules. Getting a chamber organ meant renting it from pretty far away and then putting it on a boat.


[NYT]: In New York, you will perform the Vespers without a conductor for the first time. How much of that is about empowering the singers?


[JG]: As a woman, trying to run an ensemble has its tricky moments. I spent years feeling that my ideas were not worthy enough to stand on their own, and I brought in a lot of guest directors. And yet each time I knew exactly what I wanted the music to sound like and I knew what I wanted to say with it. But I didn’t know if I could say those things and have them be reacted to in the way that a male counterpart could. Part of that is about being a singer, and about the place that we hold in the music community — which is not what it was in the Baroque. And part of that is being a woman with a high speaking voice, a high singing voice. I often felt that no one was taking me seriously.


But I’m trying to be braver, to have the courage of my convictions. I know that this music does not need, nor did it originally have, a conductor. I feel that as long as singers are constantly under the thumb of a conductor, they will not use their full musical abilities. And that is a very tough road to be on in a community where conductors really want a job and where donors really want to give those conductors a job. 


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Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, New York Times
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