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Monteverdi's 'Vespers of 1610': Heaven, I'm in Heaven

For Jeffrey Jones-Ragona and Daniel Johnson, performing Monteverdi's divine 'Vespers of 1610' in its entirety at St. Mary's Cathedral is a dream come true

By Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 23, 2005

Monteverdi's 'Vespers of 1610': Heaven, I'm in Heaven

In January, when the eight-year effort to restore St. Mary's Cathedral to its original 19th-century Neo-Gothic grandeur was completed, Jeffrey Jones-Ragona, the church's director of music, had an idea. "It occurred to me while I was talking to Father Bud Roland, the rector of the cathedral, that we should musically consecrate the restored sanctuary," he says. "And I knew the best way to do it would be to offer the greatest musical effort ever dedicated to the Mother of God: the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, by Claudio Monteverdi."

Ah, Monteverdi's Vespers – one of those rare religious compositions through which it seems the clouds part and we hear heaven itself. Like Handel's Messiah and Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the Vespers is sacred music at its most sublime. But it may exceed those masterworks since it precedes them. "Monteverdi was showing what church music could be," says Jones-Ragona. "Bach and Handel were writing at a time when the use of instruments, instrumental effects, large-scale choral writing, and vocal virtuosity were part and parcel of what was expected whenever people heard music. It was all brand new at the time of the Vespers in 1610."

"And since it was brand new, it hadn't become codified in the sort of predictable ways that we expect in the High Baroque. 'OK, Martha, here comes another danged da capo aria. I'm going for a martini.'" So says Daniel Johnson, artistic director of the Texas Early Music Project, which is presenting this week's performance of the Vespers with the Schola Cantorum of Saint Mary's.

Taking, says Jones-Ragona, "pre-existing material, and in many ways incredibly uninteresting musical material," – i.e., the simplistic psalm tone of Gregorian chant – "Monteverdi demonstrates just how glorious something so simple can become in the hands of an imaginative master craftsman. It goes beyond mere virtuosity; he makes profound musical statements in every movement."

"There's so much polyphonic activity with beautiful and soaring lines, and the harmonic rhythm is so varied and compelling," Johnson adds, "folks may not really know that they've been hearing chant. Call it subliminal chant."

For both men, who have performed various parts of the Vespers locally but never the work in its entirety in Austin, this week's concert is a dream come true: the complete work performed with musicians on period instruments (San Francisco wind ensemble the Whole Noyse, cornettist Douglas Kirk of Montreal, and violinist Laurie Young Stevens leading the TEMP Baroque Orchestra) and a roster of exquisite vocalists (among them Claire Vangelisti, Stephanie Prewitt, Kathlene Ritch Brown, Christopher LeCluyse, David Stevens, and Jones-Ragona and Johnson) in a beautiful, acoustically rich cathedral. Jones-Ragona believes "there is no better place to hear it." Amen.


Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 will be performed Saturday, Sept. 24, 8:15pm, at Saint Mary's Cathedral, 203 E. 10th. For more information, call 472-4540 or 371-0099.

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