Mary in the City of Angels

Los Angeles today might not be the first place that comes to mind when seeking out hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  However, a recent concert on Sunday, November 18, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, featuring Monteverdi’s Vespers (Vespro della Beata Vergine) of 1610, was not the first time that this city has lived up to its literal name.

I recall my discovery several years ago of one of the most beautiful versions of the Ave Maria composed since Schubert.  It was written by Los Angeles composer Morton Lauridsen, with whom I’ve since become acquainted. When I asked Lauridsen, a Protestant, about this radiant a cappella motet, so suffused with love for Mary, he responded, “I don’t have to belong to the Catholic Church to be in love with Mary.”

The recent concert I attended brought this to mind for a reason.  The Vespers were performed with outstanding vocal purity by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.  It is this same group that premiered the Ave Maria, which, in fact, was composed in honor of Paul Salamunovich, its director at the time.  These forces made the world premiere recording on the RCM label (9705).  Several weeks ago, I was absolutely floored when I received a UPS tube from Lauridsen, because it contained the original manuscript sketch of the opening measures of Ave Maria, given to me because the composer knows how much I love the music.  Needless to say, the preciousness of this gift went straight through my heart.

My expectations for the performance of the Vespers were high because of my prior acquaintance with the LA Master Chorale through both the Lauridsen recording and its performances of the wonderful Te Deum by Dominick Argento and Maurice Durufle’s Messe “Cum Jubilo, also for the RCM label.  My expectations were easily met by the Chorale, now under the baton of Grant Gershon, along with the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra.

First some words about the extraordinary Vespers.  Monteverdi was not primarily known for religious or liturgical music, but rather for his secular motets, madrigals and operas.  Why he wrote the Vespers is a matter of speculation.  Some think it was a job résumé, which he intended to help him escape the court of Mantua for a more favorable and lucrative locale.  In any case, it seemed to work, as he was offered a place at St. Mark’s in Venice, where he served as maestro di cappella for the rest of his long career, which ended with his death in 1643.

Monteverdi’s Vespers are in the tradition of the sung evening service for feasts of the Virgin Mary.  For this, he gave choral settings to five psalms (Dixit Dominus [6-part choir], Laudate pueri [8-part choir], Laetatus sum [6-part choir], Nisi Dominus [10-part choir], and Lauda Ierusalem [7-part choir]), followed by the Marian hymn, Ave Maris Stella, and a setting of the Magnificat, which closes the work.  Between the psalms, Monteverdi inserted five “sacred concertos,” a sequence of motets for a gradually increasing number of solo voices, with continuo accompaniment—the last one, an exuberant Sonata Sopra ‘Sancta Maria ora pro nobis’, with an extensive instrumental introduction, followed by the full chorus.

It is unclear whether Monteverdi expected the Vespers to be performed all together, or only in parts.  Nonetheless, it has become the custom to play the whole piece together, which takes about an hour and a half.  Much to the credit of the LA Master Chorale, the Vespers were played without intermission.  The singing was thrilling, from the first entry by the tenor at Deus in adiutorium meum intende, followed by the resplendent full chorus and orchestra, till the closing, magnificent Magnificat.  The eight soloists, drawn from the 40-member Chorale, were all outstanding, especially tenors Daniel Chaney, Michael Lichtenaurer, and Matthew Tresler, and sopranos Suzanne Anderson and Claire Fedoruk.

Tresler’s solo in Nigra Sum was tender and exquisitely delicate. In the Duo Seraphim, the piece was begun by Michael Lichtenauer and Chaney in a brilliant evocation of the text describing “two Seraphim … calling one to the other,” as they sang antiphonally back and forth until, when the Holy Spirit enters, they were appropriately joined by the third tenor, Tresler. The singing and the effect were simply superb. Though this “sacred concerto” only lasts about four minutes, it was one of the highlights of the evening.

These first two tenors again created an excellent impression in the next “sacred concerto,” Audi coelam. Chaney sang downstage, praying to heaven, while Tresler, placed above in the organ loft, sang the heavenly answers to the prayers. Visually and dramatically this worked stunningly well.

The last “sacred concerto,” Sonata Sopra ‘Sancta Maria ora pro nobis,’ after an orchestral introduction, contains a very lovely violin duo that was well played by Ingrid Mathews and Janet Strauss.  When the full chorus joined in, the effect was inspiriting.

With my comments on the soloists, in fact, I may seem to be neglecting the chorus, for which no praise could be too high.  Not only was the singing spot on throughout, but it was infused with spirit or, I might even say, soul.  This was no where more evident than in Ave Maris Stella and the splendidly sung Magnificat.

I have two niggles. Music director Grant Gershon, who otherwise did such a magnificent job, turned to address the audience after the first Psalm in order to explain the music to us. I think this was a mistake. He was simply extemporizing what was already in the program notes. By breaking through the fourth wall, by violating the dramatic space between his performers and the audience, some of the mystique of the Vespers evaporated.  It was after the spell was broken that the audience felt free to applaud after each number, which again interrupted the atmosphere. Unfortunately, Gershon made another interpolation after the last Psalm.

I was also given intermittent pause by the Musica Angelica, its 13 members playing on original instruments.  I found that when the members of this Baroque orchestra were individually accompanying the singers, everything was generally fine.  In fact, the string and lute players seemed particularly fine.  However, when playing as an ensemble, they occasionally sounded slightly out of sync and not quite in tune.  I do not know if Cornettos and Sackbuts are particularly unwieldy brass instruments, but they certainly sounded unwieldy.  However, I often find the sound of original instruments faintly ridiculous, so I may be prejudiced in this area—one in which I admit to no expertise.  I note that other reviewers (LA Times, were thrilled, but I have to trust my ears on this one.

Monteverdi was renowned in his time for his highly expressive vocal style.  What about for our time?  Does it still convey?  The answer from the Walt Disney Concert Hall is that, when sung as splendidly as it was by the LA Master Chorale—yes, the Vespers are for our time or any other.  There is something timeless about music like this, which is the whole idea. It is also clear from this great composition that Monteverdi was every bit as much in love with Mary, as is Morton Lauridsen.  It is quite a coincidence that the loves of these two composers have been so effectively communicated by the same performers.  Or perhaps, as unexpected as it might be—could this be something about the City of Angels?


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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