Guiding the Spiritual and Soothing the Anxious

Te Deum performing “A Glimpse of Heaven” concert at Visitation Catholic Church in January 2023 (photos by Brian Rice Creative)

Te Deum performs Monteverdi’s Venetian Vespers of 1641

Te Deum closes out their 15th season with “Monteverdi’s Venetian Vespers of 1641,” a recreated vespers service from the 17th century.

Involved in both sacred and secular music, Claudio Monteverdi is one of the dominant figures of the era, as musical styles shifted from that of the Renaissance into the Baroque.

“What Monteverdi offered was the unbridled desire to express text, and I think that’s one of the things that makes his music so exciting,” said Matthew Christopher Shepard, founder and artistic director of Te Deum. “It can just be over the top sometimes, in the best ways.”

Born in 1567, Monteverdi served as a court musician early in his career as he developed his “modern style,” publishing several sets of madrigals. In 1613, Monteverdi was appointed master of the choir of the famed St. Mark’s Basilica of Venice, where he would serve for more than 30 years.

The best of this work from that time was published in the anthology “Selva Morale e Spirituale” (Moral and Spiritual Forest) in 1640-1641. He was by then in his 70s, and he included the pieces that best represented his musical expression.

Shepard selected pieces from Monteverdi’s collection to create a vespers service. Vespers is the evening service, conducted daily, though Sunday services were traditionally more elaborate. “It’s that final time, at the close of the day, to be still, to contemplate and be in silence, in prayer, and be in community,” he said.

In preparing each Te Deum concert, Shepard researches not just the appropriate musical style, but also the setting for which the music was intended.

“Placing the music in the context for which it was designed is something that has a lot of interest to me, and I think can even help provide an additional layer of understanding and meaning to repertoire when it is given something closer to the original context,” said Shepard.

In keeping with that tradition, the ensemble is using instrumental selections between choral pieces, in place of chant. For this concert, Te Deum collaborates with Kansas City Baroque, under the direction of Trilla Ray-Carter. She is coordinating a Baroque chamber orchestra: two violins, theorbo, harpsichord, organ and cello. They’ll perform music authentic to the period and region from both Monteverdi and his contemporaries.

Shepard was first introduced to the music of Monteverdi in college through a performance of his Vespers of 1610. “It was music like I’d never heard before. It was just so over the top with joy and color and variety,” he said.

Monteverdi’s music was freer than that of his predecessors, breaking the rules of the Renaissance (though he did write proficiently in the older style, too). The melody was guided by the text. “Finding meaning in every single word, he takes that as far as anyone ever did,” said Shepard, who described the music of Monteverdi as both “charming” and “a little bit unruly.”

It’s a far cry from the staid expectations of sacred music and the portrait of a Monteverdi dressed in somber black. But then again Venice was an unruly place to be, fairly liberal compared to its neighbors. It had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church earlier in the century (and then reconciled), was caught up in armed conflict, and, later in Monteverdi’s life, beset with the plague. A trade power, the city was connected to the world at large through the seas.

But inside the gilded and mosaicked glory of St. Mark’s Basilica, Monteverdi’s music guided the spiritual and soothed the anxious.

Though Te Deum is a sacred music ensemble, concerts are presented in a way to be welcoming to people of all faiths, in a way that is “universal,” said Shepard.

“It’s been important to me to connect our music to themes and topics that are of an ultimate importance, regardless of faith background,” he said. “One of the things all faiths try to do is speak to those elements of life that are the most important, whether that’s joy or celebration, whether that is grief, whether that is life after death, whether that is community and the way we should treat one another.”

Shepard founded Te Deum in 2008. Since that time, it has become one of the leading choirs in the Kansas City area. Shepard credits the ensemble’s success with the skill of the vocalists and the support of the community. “You have to keep earning it, you have to keep working for it. If it’s not growing, it’s likely moving backwards.”

Te Deum Kansas City performs “Monteverdi’s Venetian Vespers of 1641” at 7:30 p.m. June 3 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and 3 p.m. June 4 at Village Presbyterian Church. For more information visit www.te-deum.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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