Event review: Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 at Croydon Minster

By - Friday 25th November, 2016

Strike up sagbutts and unfamiliar long-necked stringed instruments

Photo author’s own.

It had been a terrible week: internationally, the US election delivered the sort of appalling where even black humour jars, because you just can’t joke about this stuff. Joking is for when you’ve regrouped, shared your pain with others and started to work out a response. In Croydon, there had also been the horror of the Sandilands tram disaster.

Vespers are services of Christian evening prayer, and it feels like evening right now: as if the bright day is done and we are for the dark.

The Vespers of 1610 were to be performed in Croydon Minster by the Whitgift Chamber Choir, the minster’s three choirs and His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts. That’s all that we knew because we couldn’t read the programme, or least, I couldn’t (see below). We rode the wave with no idea what was coming next.

They sang from the minster’s corners and shadows, waking its echoes

From the very first notes, though, Monteverdi’s spell was cast. A tenor voice started up behind us, not on the stage in front: it was the original surround-sound. This theme of moving the voices continued throughout – a stunning idea, creating a call and response like answered prayer to an unseen god. Soloists stepped out of sight, then sang again from the minster’s shadows and corners, waking its echoes and enhancing its beautiful acoustic. It made me remember the night of the minster’s fund-raising hymnathon when during a shift from 1:00am until 2:30am, (part of thirty hours’ non-stop hymns) to keep ourselves awake we walked around singing. As then, it seemed that the building was living: the music that’s soaked into its stone was singing back.

The Vespers are baroque but have more ancient roots, and like Croydon, they come from many places. You can hear the layers within them, in particular a wild, sad timbre like that of the Islamic call to prayer from a mosque. It captured the bewildered sorrow in which many of us must have listened that night. Simple and haunting plainchant was followed by vivid choral bursts but throughout, the performance was entirely restrained. This made its intensity still greater.

It’s superb to watch people lost in delight

Musical precision such as this takes discipline and a large amount of rehearsal, which allowed exceptional phrasing to be sustained over an hour and a half’s unbroken singing. That length created some problems, for the audience (both old and young members of which needed comfort breaks) and also for the younger choristers, a few of whom became distractingly fidgety. (One child was sick – he actually vomited down the front of his cassock – and was led away from the stage.) But the professionalism of the performers and the audience’s absorption in the music meant that even this caused little disruption.

All eight soloists gave impressive performances. The one most worth mentioning was also the most mobile, not just in his changes of location round the minster, but also in his body. It’s superb to watch people so lost in beauty that they are no longer conscious of themselves, and Charles MacDougall‘s little sways and shimmies as he poured out his most technically demanding song were a delight.

Singing can soothe our Trumpian despair

For Monteverdi’s first listeners, Vespers were more than a very nice noise. In 1610, praying was something you really got into and their sequence would have been familiar. For us moderns, that’s inaccessible, but autumn 2016 is a time for reflection and I found the Vespers an inner process too. A back-and-forth question-and-answer just like this is going around the world as voices are raised, lighter and deeper, those of men and women, adults and children, communities and nations, trying to understand our times, seeking to hold together in trouble whilst dangerous forces work to break us apart. Beauty gives us hope – and these Vespers are supremely beautiful.

This magnificent occasion was let down by its programme, a dense and intimidating feat of cut and paste which – even if there were members of the audience who found it appealing – it was too dark to read in the minster anyway. I got tired just looking at it. We needed a programme that gave us a steer: “what’s that instrument he’s got there?” was my first question, because some of them were unusual. How about a bit of help with that, an at-a-glance structure of the work to follow as we went along, and more on the terrific soloists than just their names?

But that’s a minor point. These are bad times, and singing together can soothe our Trumpian despair. It reminds us that life’s not about being great, or whoever was great. We’re flawed and fractional but still, together we add up to something that’s worth being part of. In one of Croydon’s loveliest places, Monteverdi’s Vespers helped us hold fast to that which is good.
Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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