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Monteverdi masterpiece a challenging undertaking

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IF the possibility of time travel has ever appealed to you, you're in luck. On Saturday and Sunday, April 6 and 7, at Westminster United Church, Camerata Nova will take a step back in history with a full-length production of Claudio Monteverdi's 1610 magnum opus, Vespers for the Blessed Virgin.

The tongue-in-cheek concert name is The Full Monte, telling us something immediately about this musical organization. These are serious musicians who don't take themselves too seriously. They're having fun -- and this is passed along to their loyal audience.

"We did portions of it a few seasons ago," conductor Ross Brownlee says of the 90-minute work. "It is so powerful. Whenever I need a life reset, I listen to the Vespers. But it takes enormous resources. It is intricate, with passionate solo work."

Rehearsals began just over a month ago. Brownlee, a music teacher at Westgate Collegiate, is holding 10 rehearsals with the singers, the last of which will be with the 14-piece orchestra. "This is the biggest undertaking I've ever done," he says. "There is lots of rehearsal planning..."

He feels all the preparation will be worth it. "It's extremely accessible," he explains. "It's tonal, very rhythmic and there is an enormous amount of excitement. There's a vast amount of colour because of the instruments and some of the vocal solos and duets are the most passionate you'll ever hear."

Generally believed to have been composed for the wedding celebrations of the Duke of Mantua's son, Prince Francesco, and his bride, Margherita of Savoy, Vespers is a revolutionary setting of the five psalms, hymns and Magnificat that make up a Roman Catholic Vespers service. Monteverdi also included four motets for various numbers of voices, based primarily on love poetry from the Song of Solomon.

Solo parts abound, with a number of Camerata Nova choir members performing substantial parts. There are six additional soloists: soprano Maria Luz Alvarez, bass Derek Morphy and the members of the Encore Quartet -- soprano Marni Enns, mezzo Kirsten Schellenberg, tenor Doug Pankratz and bass Kris Kornelsen.

The orchestra is not your usual collection of standard instruments. The five-piece string section -- violinists Claudine St-Arnauld and Rachel Moody, violist Anne Elise Lavallée, cellist Leanne Zacharias and bass Meredith Johnson -- will all use gut strings to reproduce as authentic a sound as possible.

Camerata Nova singer Michael McKay will provide organ continuo on a portative organ and Phil Rukavina will play lute and theorbo, an oversized Italian-developed lute.

Alexandra Opsahl, Matthew Jennejohn and Douglas Kirk will play cornetti, curved wooden pipes prized for their ability to complement the human voice. "They do a magnificent tightrope walk," said Brownlee. "It's delicate and magical."

On sackbut, a predecessor of the modern trombone, will be WSO principal trombonist Steve Dyer and Peter Christensen. Trevor Dix will play bass sackbut.

Brownlee says there will be "surround sound" effects, with musicians and singers situated throughout the church.

"There are duels between the strings and cornetti," he said. "And live improvisation... One group will do a decoration and the other will try to top it."

What gives a work written in 1610 the relevance to grab listeners in 2013? "Each movement is so different; there is no sense of boredom," said Brownlee. "It goes from theatrical to driving to passionate... And it's such a big enterprise that it won't be back again soon. This is a landmark."

There are 30-minute pre-show talks at 7:15 p.m. Saturday and 2:15 p.m. Sunday, with the concerts starting at 8 p.m. and 3 p.m. respectively.

Tickets are $28/adults, $23/seniors and $12 for students, available at 204-918-4547, at www.cameratanova.com, McNally Robinson and at the door.

gwenda.nemerofsky@shaw.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2013 D3

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