The performance by Voice of Ascension of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 was, simply, glorious. I felt so grateful at having the opportunity to hear it performed live, at last. Yes, the music is exquisite, from start to finish. But Monteverdi’s masterpiece is more than that. Listening to it, I kept thinking of how certain rare artists step so easily outside the boundaries of the practice of their times and create something entirely new. More contemporary examples that spring to mind (although there are many others) include Picasso shaking the world of art, or in music, perhaps Stravinsky. In literature, Dante comes to mind as an artist who very consciously set about to begin a ‘dolce stil nove’ that shaped everything that came after.
As I listened, the sounds of other music from around 1610 was also in my mind, and as great as that music is, the fantastic variety and freshness of every movement from the Vespers stands out. The way he knits a whole out of greatly contrasting parts, balancing masses of sound against the most intimate of settings, was groundbreaking. That I still feel the newness in his music, sitting in a church pew in New York City in 2018, was also a testament to a great performance by Dennis Keene and the wonderful singers and instrumentalists assembled for this extraordinary concert.