Harrogate Music Festival opened in spectacular fashion on Friday 30th June with a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. The candlelit ambience and excellent, resonant acoustic of St Wilfrid’s Church in Harrogate made for a perfect setting for Monteverdi’s masterwork. Especially as the skies darkened throughout the concert’s second half, the atmosphere drew in to the candle-filled space to create a real sense of prayerful tension, filled beautifully by the singers and instrumentalists of the Armonico Consort.

Led by artistic director Christopher Monks, the ensemble made great use of the space for an accessible and exciting rendition of the work, carried greatly by two standout tenor soloists in Peter Davoren and Graham Neal. Monteverdi’s work features tenor parts of an extremely acrobatic nature, as affirmed by Christopher Monks in his opening remarks that ‘tenor writing does not get harder than this’. Davoren and Neal dealt impressively with Monteverdi’s extremely complex part writing for example in the Duo Seraphim, a motet which Jeffrey Kurtzman called ‘the most elaborate ornamentation notated in any surviving motet of the early seventeenth Century.’  These two soloists’ performances were also utilised to leave the upmost impression upon the audience highly effectively in the second half’s Audi coelum. Here the two soloists left the stage only to reappear and perform the motet’s ethereal call and response from the pulpit and organ loft, Monteverdi’s beautiful choral writing echoing not just throughout the vocal parts but across the expanse of the church’s resonant space. This move was later also made by the instrumental ensemble’s two violinists for their similar antiphonal passage. This introduction of elements of almost novelty to create an accessible and inclusive atmosphere was also enhanced by Ryaan Ahmed’s prominent performance on the rarely seen instrumentation of the renaissance Theorbo.

In this way the Armonico Consort’s performance made every effort to captivate and draw in an audience within which many would have been unfamiliar and new to the vespers. The opening psalm tone sang by Graham Neal, preceding the sustained tutti grandeur of the opening Deus in Adjutorium meun intende, represented a dramatic, bold and accessible opening, making as much as possible of Monteverdi’s operatic and progressive writing. This was not a performance obsessed with exact historical accuracy, but rather intending to entice the audience into the magic of the vespers and music of this period, for example choosing to omit the second magnificat – Magnificat á 6. The vespers themselves are representative of a sense of progressive modernism, often identified as a hugely significant moment in the transition between the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Progressive excitement was captured in the Consort’s performance of the Dixit Dominus, within which Monteverdi’s incorporation of the cantus firmus into the vocal counterpoint is a watershed moment within the choral repertoire. Moreover, the recitative and metrically free style of the solo tenor motet Nigra sum is similar example of Monteverdi’s innovative compositional style and was beautifully represented by Peter Davoren’s performance.

Progressive inclusivity is a foundation of the Armonico Consort’s philosophy as seen in their AC academy project. The ensemble runs a diverse range of music and arts education projects across the UK, working both inside and out of schools to reach 15,000 children per year. The morning after the concert in Harrogate the Consort participated in the Festival’s ‘Big Sing’ in which a diverse 150 strong audience came together to participate in a concert of communal singing, directed by Armonico’s conductor Christopher Monks. Once again Harrogate Music Festivals Artist in residence have made a massive contribution to musical life in Harrogate and we can’t wait until they return!