The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Monteverdi’s “Vespers of 1610” at UW proves that Madison has a larger and enthusiastic early music audience

November 12, 2010

Today’s posting is a review by guest critic John W. Barker (below). Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

I have been attending concerts and events at Mills Hall (below) on the UW campus since the auditorium was first opened.

This past Sunday evening I witnessed a capacity-audience ovation that was the longest, most persistent, most fervent I can recall ever hearing there.

What was it for? Why, for a performance of a work now celebrating the 400th anniversary of its publication.

That’s right, 400th!  In a word, “early music.”  And a masterpiece thereof.

Claudio Monteverdi‘s liturgical publication, known as the “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin” or just the “1610 Vespers,” was a pivotal work, not only in the epoch-making career of Monteverdi (below), but also in the transition in the Western musical language from modal polyphony to tonal homophony.

Beyond that, it is an astounding assemblage of richly varied and profoundly imaginative sacred music by one of the supreme giants of the art. In other words, awfully good stuff! (See the manuscript to his opera “Poppea,” below.)

This performance was given by the UW-Madison Madrigal Singers, augmented by an array of expert period-instrument players mostly brought in from a range of distances.

The conductor, Bruce Gladstone (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), wisely made his choices among many performing options, and steered his group through a powerful, inspiring, and truly beautiful rendition, given without intermission.

Though performed on the campus by a UW group, this was not just another of those seemingly innumerable musical events the UW School of Music runs each season. The performance was sponsored and largely funded by the Madison Early Music Festival (below, its logo), drawing, too, upon a very generous bequest to the organization made by the recently deceased former faculty member, Jane Graff.

This was, in sum, an important Madison music event.

The Madison Early Music Festival (a concert snapshot is below) originated in 2000. As a part of its debut season that July, it gave the last public performance of the Monteverdi Vespers heard in Madison. MEMF since then has become the galvanizing force behind mounting attention, by musicians and audiences alike, to “early” music here.

That means music dating from before the eras that produced the “standard” repertoire on which mainstream music-making conventionally concentrates: in other words, music from the beginnings of Western Civilization through, say, the 18th century.

That is a literature that still can be dismissed by our media as just a marginal blip in all that “elitist” classical stuff. Well, a large and still-growing portion of Madison’s serious musical public knows better. It comes regularly to the wonderful MEMF concerts each July. And, above all, it can fill Mills Hall and respond to top-quality early music making with a prolonged and highly enthusiastic standing ovation.

I am not sure which delighted and excited me more about that concert: the superb performance, or the knowing, caring, wanting public we can recognize in Madison for this great body of music.

Were you there to hear the Monteverdi “Vespers” (the title page from the 1610 edition is below)?

What do you think of the performance and of the early music scene in Madison?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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