Brady Allred likes a challenge. Which also means he likes to challenge his singers.
But when Allred, who directs the University of Utah choral program, decided to perform Claudio Monteverdi's gigantic, two-hour-long "Vespers," he didn't quite realize what he was getting himself into. Which was probably a good thing; otherwise, he might have skipped it in favor of a work of more manageable size.
Instead, he's doing what will be the work's first performance at the U. and quite possibly the first performance in Utah.
"I still keep thinking, 'Did I really program it?"' Allred said jokingly when he spoke with the Deseret Morning News. He isn't having second thoughts — the preparation and rehearsals are too advanced to replace the "Vespers" with a substitute.
And Allred would never do that anyway. "I like to challenge myself," he said, "and I wanted the students to experience this. This is new territory for a lot of people," not only for the student chorus members but also for most of the soloists and orchestra members.
The "Vespers" will be performed twice this weekend: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Libby Gardner Concert Hall at the U. and April 13 at 8 p.m. in the Cathedral of the Madeleine, as part of the Madeleine Festival.
Performers will be the University of Utah Singers and A Cappella Choir. Vocal soloists will include Carol Ann Allred, Shawna Gottfredson, Laurel James, George Dyer and Todd Miller, among others, and an orchestra consisting of U. faculty members and area musicians.
One interesting and unexpected obstacle Allred encountered early was finding a chittarone player. A chittarone, the largest instrument in the lute family, was a popular accompanying instrument in the early 17th century when Monteverdi wrote the "Vespers."
Today, it's obsolete. There are only a handful of people in the country who play it.
"Period instrument ensembles aren't big in Salt Lake, and there is nobody here who can play it," Allred said.
After making inquiries and sending letters across the country, Allred was able to track down someone who plays the chittarone. "We're bringing in August Denhard from Seattle, who is a wonderful musician and director of the Early Music Guild in Seattle," he said.
As is typical for composers of the 17th and early 18th centuries, Monteverdi seldom specified what instruments are to accompany the singers. "That has been a gargantuan task," Allred said. "And since we're performing it in two different venues, with very different acoustics, I'm going to have to change the accompaniment to take that into account."
Because the stylistic characteristics of the work are alien to what a singer (or instrumentalist, for that matter) considers to be "normal" today, the performers have had to get acquainted with a different musical aesthetic.
But despite that challenge, the students have really taken to the work, Allred said. "The choir enjoys it, even though they've had to work on their vocal articulation," to become comfortable with the long, rapid-fire, florid passages that pepper the score.
Along the same line, the soloists have had to become proficient at ornamenting their parts, because that, too, isn't written out in the score. "All that was intended to be improvised," Allred said. "And once the soloists and the solo instruments feel courageous enough to improvise, it will add extra excitement to the performance."
Monteverdi's "Vespers" is one of the defining works of the early baroque period, as much as J.S. Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," written more than a century later, is for the late baroque period.
But while Bach's work is performed regularly, especially during the Easter season, Monteverdi's is only occasionally played. And Allred is delighted to be able to give Salt Lake audiences a chance to hear it live. "This is exciting music. It isn't boring at all. Nothing about Monteverdi's music is boring."
In conjunction with these concerts, noted Monteverdi scholar Jeffrey Kurtzman from Washington University will give a lecture to place the music in a historical perspective. The lectures will be one hour before each performance.
If you go . . .
What: Monteverdi's Vespers, with the University of Utah Singers and A Cappella Choir, soloists and orchestra, Brady Allred, conductor
Where: Libby Gardner Concert Hall, University of Utah
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $7 general admission, $3 students
Where: Cathedral of the Madeleine
When: April 13, 8 p.m.
How much: free
Also: Pre-concert lecture by Jeffrey Kurtzman, Libby Gardner Concert Hall, Saturday, 6:30 pm.; Scanlan Hall, adjacent to the Cathedral of the Madeleine, Sunday, 7 p.m.; both free