For all the fame surrounding it, Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine, more commonly known as the Vespers of 1610, isn’t performed all that often — not only because of its massive length (13 movements that unfold over 90 minutes) but because the composer, like many of his Renaissance contemporaries, left many things up to the performers.

“It’s extra complicated because Monteverdi didn’t give us a lot of information,” said Robert Istad, artistic director and conductor of the Pacific Chorale. His group joins other supporting ensembles to perform the massive work on Saturday at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach.

Vespers of 1610

Robert Istad, conductor
Members of Pacific Chorale
Ruben Valenzuela, organ
Bach Collegium San Diego

Where: Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, 2100 Mar Vista Drive, Newport Beach

When: 8 p.m. March 4

Cost: $25-$75

Contact: 714-662-2345 or

Some historians think that Monteverdi never even heard the piece in its entirety during his lifetime (the composer died in 1643). Istad thinks it wasn’t really intended to be heard that way.

“I don’t think the whole thing was performed very often, but much of it was probably done separately. Something like this was a showpiece for (Monteverdi). He put together festive settings to present to the nobility to lobby for a better position. He was trying to show off what he could do. It’s like the Bach Mass in B Minor — composers put giant multi-movement works together to show they were a master of all these styles.”

The score’s lack of specificity affords interpreters a great deal of flexibility. Monteverdi refrained from setting tempos, dynamics and instrumentation. In certain sections, it’s not clear which passages should be sung by soloists and which should be performed by larger parts of the ensemble. Each conductor who tackles the Vespers must make a series of often complicated decisions, and no two performances are alike as a result.

The Vespers wasn’t written in the form of a conductor’s score, Istad said. “Everything was printed in part books. Much of the time the instruments played along with the voices. And we don’t know exactly what instruments were used or how they were used.” Istad is working with a recent edition of the Vespers that makes some instrumental suggestions but doesn’t specify. “It basically says, ‘Here are your options. Choose your own adventure.’ It’s a lot of preparation, but it’s worth it.”

A Mid-20th Century Rediscovery

Monteverdi’s gargantuan work is also a tricky undertaking in terms of the musical forces involved. Members of the Pacific Chorale are joined for the performance by the Bach Collegium San Diego. That group’s artistic director, Ruben Valenzuela, will provide the organ continuo. And members of Tesserae Baroque, a Los Angeles group, will perform on period instruments such as cornetti, violas da gamba and sackbuts.

Istad knew it would take considerable collaboration to bring the Vespers together convincingly. To begin with, he contacted Valenzuela.

Pacific Chorale’s artistic director Robert Istad. Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Chorale/Doug Gifford Photography

“He and I have been friends for a long time. He is a genius continuo artist and a musicologist. And he’s a very accomplished performer. He assembles these dream teams in San Diego and they put on amazing concerts. When this opportunity came around I called him and said, ‘Wouldn’t this be fun?’ He said, ‘Let me talk to my executive director.’ And he quickly came back with a yes.” 

Monteverdi’s Vespers is often hailed as one of the masterpieces of sacred music, but the challenges of performing the work confined it to obscurity until the middle of the 20th century. British conductor John Eliot Gardiner was almost singlehandedly responsible for re-popularizing it. While an undergraduate at Cambridge University, he began his conducting career with a performance of the complete Vespers at King’s College Chapel in 1964. This well-received performance led directly to the formation of his Monteverdi Choir.

“He inspired everyone to look at it,” Istad said. “He presented it to the world as a very flexible piece. You could perform portions of it alone, like the last movement, the Magnificat. I think it’s more approachable that way. He inspired curiosity, and since then there have been a number of different and equally wonderful interpretations.”

The Vespers is meant to be heard in a grand church with splendid acoustics. Istad thinks he’s chosen the best venue in Orange County for the performance with Our Lady Queen of Angels.

“I selected this place for several reasons. First of all, I love the size. But it also has clarity of articulation that can support a major work like this. I performed the St. John Passion there in my first year with the choir, and I really fell in love with (the venue).”

Istad built in extra rehearsal time to accommodate the immense amount of work needed to get the Vespers performance-worthy.

“We’ve done eight rehearsals with the chorus and soloists, and three full rehearsals with orchestra and chorus, which in this case is our professional chamber ensemble. Normally I would rehearse a concert with my choir six times. But because there’s so much stylistic interpretation with this piece, you can’t just read the score.”

Istad admits being a little in awe of the ensemble he has put together. Working with period instruments always thrills him and fills him with respect, the conductor said.

“Anyone who plays these early instruments well, I revere them. It’s so complicated. Look at the early bassoon or flute. They’re basically sticks with holes in them. When I work with a natural horn player I almost have to stop conducting, I’m so amazed.”

Istad thinks one of the best qualities of the Vespers is a sensuality that belies its religious context. (Some historians think it might have been written for a royal wedding, and one of its text sources is the often-erotic Song of Solomon).

“It is very sensual and sexy in quite a few spots. You can tell (Monteverdi) loves writing secular music too. you can feel that secularism creeping in. It’s an amazing work in so many ways. It really (anticipates) the transition to the Baroque era and the increasing importance of (non-religious) music.”

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at

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