A Lifetime of Memories with Monteverdi

Earlier this month I got to perform Monteverdi’s monumental Vespers of 1610 with Seraphic Fire. Not only are the Vespers an awe-inspiring, joyful work that I could sing every day of my life, but all my performances of it have been under extraordinary and memorable circumstances.

They’ve all been with Seraphic Fire. Some great friends and colleagues have been along for one or two, or all three of our Vespers experiences. The first was in the winter of 2009, when we went to Kalamazoo, Michigan to record the work in collaboration with the top choir from Western Michigan University.

recording

It was my first really serious recording session, and the first of several I’ve done with GRAMMY-winning producer Peter Rutenberg.

VespersCDjacket

That album made it to the top of the iTunes classical chart, and garnered Seraphic Fire its first major national publicity with a story on NPR’s All Things Considered.

But long before the album was released, the epic recording session and winter weather we survived generated memories and stories we’re still telling today. We were all a bit younger then,

michigan

With my “Pulchra es” duet partner, Abigail Haynes Lennox

and before the recording session we sang a concert in the middle of a Wisconsin blizzard.

gabbysnow

Gabby’s reaction to the blizzard (note snowflakes on hair)

Luckily we lived to tell it all, and most importantly to perform the Vespers again.

The next year, we sang the Vespers in Miami, Coral Gables and Ft. Lauderdale, and then took them on tour to Mexico City. We gave three very special performances, two in the Catedral Metropolitana at the center of the city’s Zócalo,

catedral

and one at the splendid Art Deco concert hall Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Carnegie Hall of Mexico.

Palacio

This time I got to duet with the lovely Rebecca Duren, and it was when I first met the incredible lutenist John Lenti.

You better bet that tour yielded extra-musical stories and experiences, too. There was the manifestación (protest) that delayed our first rehearsal in the Catedral. There was our triumphant climbing of the pyramids at Teotihuacan,

pramid

a day spent in Chapultepec Park,

Chapulin

and of course all the delicious Mexican food we ate during our week there.

As Patrick always says, you never know when or if you’re going to perform a great work again. Lucky for me, Mexico 2010 wasn’t my last Vespers. Seraphic Fire was invited to perform the work at the ACDA Eastern Division Conference in Baltimore this month. We gave two overwhelmingly received headliner concerts in the beautiful – visually and acoustically – Baltimore Basilica, the oldest Catholic cathedral in the U.S. We also got to stay at the very nice convention hotel on the Inner Harbor, which certainly didn’t make the trip less pleasant.

Baltimore

The view from my room in Baltimore

This time we collaborated with the fully professional choir of DC’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. They were wonderful. We did most of our rehearsing at the Shrine, and after our Baltimore concerts we returned to DC to perform the Vespers one more time at the Shine, an unbelievable 3,000-person worship space.

basilica

Theorbo dream team of John Lenti and David Walker in the Basilica

Musically these were stunning and rewarding performances. The week was even more meaningful for me because I got to temporarily live and work in DC again. I lived there ten years ago, before heading to Arizona for graduate school. Even though I knew I wanted to go away and gain the polish I needed from grad school, I loved living in Washington and always thought I’d return.

While Seraphic Fire was there we stayed in an Embassy Row hotel (also amazingly nice – the ensemble is moving up in the world!) within walking distance of my old neighborhood. I got to eat at my very favorite restaurant, Sette, stop in at my old office and great the folks at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and walk up to Woodley Park for brunch with my two best girlfriends from my days there. One of those friends, Susan Lewis Kavinski, sings in the Shrine’s choir and I got to see her all week long in rehearsals and concerts. It was quite a week.

Susie-Kat

With Susie at the National Shrine

I sure hope this wasn’t my last chance to sing Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. But I have to say, any future performances have a lot to live up to. They can’t be just ho-hum spectacularly artistic concerts, because the work has set a high standard for me in terms of life experiences connected to it, and memories to be made.

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Music for a Siege

Ever since grad school I’ve been interested in Latin American baroque music. I always jump at an opportunity to sing it, so I was excited when my friend Pablo Mahave-Veglia invited me back to Grand Valley State University in Michigan to perform Bolivian composer Estanislao Miguel Leyseca’s Miserere with faculty and students there.

GVSU early music ensemble

Early European music from Central and South America is a hot topic in the musicology world these days — after all, there’s not much new classical music left to be discovered in the Old World, but scholars are busy digging up manuscripts from church and cathedral archives on this side of the pond, and creating new editions like this one.

Leyseca score and program

The Leyseca Miserere is not actually baroque. It was written in 1781, and that date would place it in the Classical period. However, music from Latin America of that time is a fascinating mix of styles and periods. Because Spanish settlements in the New World were separated from Europe by so much time and space, there wasn’t the same concept of current fashion or of musical elements going out of style. Composers were free to draw on whatever influences and traditions they chose. In the Miserere there were grand choral movements reminiscent of Monteverdi’s great Vespers of 1610, solo movements that made me think of the Mozart C Minor Mass (written one year after Leyseca’s work) I was preparing at the same time, and a little of everything in between. It was wacky, but a lot of fun, kind of like A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas but for real.

I’m glad I attended the pre-concert lecture by Dr. Bernardo Illari, the musicologist who prepared our performing edition. He gave the context for the Miserere, which Leyseca (who immigrated to Bolivia from Sevilla, Spain) composed during a siege. While a group of the native Aymara people trapped the inhabitants of La Paz inside the city for six months, Leyseca wrote the Miserere as a musical show of strength and European dominance. I had never before thought of the political implications of Latin American classical music. Now I’m not sure what to think about this fascinating music, written and usually performed entirely by Europeans, to subjugate a native population whose land and power had already been stolen.

Dr. Illari’s lecture has given me something to ponder, and not just in the case of Latin American colonial music. Doesn’t so much music throughout the course of history have a political agenda? Performers can get away with ignoring this fact; musicologists can’t. Since I didn’t have all the answers in time for last Saturday’s performance, I decided to appreciate Leyseca’s Miserere for what it is musically — eclectic and charming — to have fun making music with good people, and to enjoy my time in the pretty city of Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids