The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Vespers last night 

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Hard to disagree with Matthew Rye's summary in the Telegraph. A very fine concert indeed, and Rye is right: the stage management was the thing. Obviously the music itself was spectacular, and the soloists matched it. But what most intrigued me (and what people were talking about at the end) was inevitably the use of space. Actually, with the music, there isn't all that much to talk about - in casual terms anyway - since it's essentially one chord, one scale and a handful of cadences kaleidoscoping round each other. But from such limited materials, Monteverdi constructs an always different, always the same effect. Like a chaotic system anything is possible, but within tight boundaries. The musical language defines a clear space; the detail is all inside.

The staging of the work brought this musical aspect out into 3-dimensional space. Although the Vespers calls for a large number of smaller ensembles and soloists in addition to a central chorus and instrumental group, the soloists were all drawn here from the central body. As each solo number approached, they would step - with a liturgical air - from the main stage and walk to one of a number of music stands at the edges of the stage in further into the auditorium. Lights pinpointed them for their solo number, then they would return - again slowly - to the stage as the next number began. The ensemble was thus continually fragmenting and congealing, defining the boundaries of the performance space as it did so. And always the music was directed inward, like light reflecting inside a crystal. As with the music, all the movement and detail went towards defining a clear territory. For the final magnificat there were around a dozen groups and subgroups in play as the musicians reconfigured themselves over and over. A unity of musical and dramatic space - supported in the musical technique - that 200 years of static orchestral tableaux would almost obliterate.

As this is the first time I've seen the Vespers done live (other than in John Eliot Gardener's video from San Marco, which is edited anyway), I have no idea if this continual movement and stage direction is par for the course. Maybe it is; but it seems there are still things Monteverdi can teach us about the fundaments of music.

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