Worlds collide and converge with French program from A Far Cry and Blue Heron

January 30, 2016 at 2:32 pm

By David Wright

A Far Cry performed with Blue Heron in a program of French devotional music Friday night at Old South Church.

At one point during the joint concert of the chamber orchestra A Far Cry and the “Renaissance choir” Blue Heron at Old South Church Friday night, Blue Heron’s director Scott Metcalfe addressed the audience.

“I’m so glad,” he said, “that A Far Cry has invited us to join them and perform early music—Fauré.”

The line got a laugh, because Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), the last of the great French Romantics, is hardly the composer most Bostonians think of when they hear the words “early music.”

But nobody was laughing as the concert closed with the caressing strains of “In Paradisum,” the final movement of Fauré’s Requiem, because the two groups—which were appearing in concert together for the first time–had just made an intriguing case for a single aesthetic connecting French sacred music from the 16th century to at least the 20th.

To put it briefly: When it comes to theology in art, the French have a word for it.  And it’s likely not a word one can display on a family website.

The linking of fertility to the divine is about the most ancient and universal theme in human religion, and the parallels between the intimacy of spiritual experience and that of erotic encounter have not been lost on poets through the ages.

Not for nothing was the love poetry of the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) incorporated in the Hebrew Bible alongside the craggy declarations of the prophets.

Even J.S. Bach felt its pull, crafting his great cantata “Wachet auf” around the metaphor of Christ as the eagerly-awaited bridegroom.

But as might be expected, it was French writers and composers who embraced this aspect of religion with both arms.  So even if Fauré’s text in Friday’s performance was the Latin Mass for the Dead, his musical setting arguably connected him to settings of the Song of Songs by his countrymen Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495-1560) and Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur (1908-2002), heard earlier in the program.

One has to say “arguably” because the choir put a sizable thumb on the scale by singing the Renaissance motets and Fauré’s 1893 work with the same, or at least similar, vibratoless “white tone.”

Some would argue for a plusher Romantic sound in the Fauré, but the composer himself said he was aiming in this work to write autre chose (something different), and the Renaissance singers’ limpid tone was certainly that.

This kind of straight tone, whether sung or played (as A Far Cry did in the Fauré), puts a spotlight on dissonance, an important factor in Friday’s concert.

In traditional “functional” harmony, a dissonance is an unpleasant sound, something to be resolved, and the listener feels slightly uncomfortable until it is.  But French and French-influenced composers from Chopin to Debussy to Stravinsky embraced dissonance as an expressive tone color, and took their sweet time resolving it, if they ever did.

Friday’s works, especially the Daniel-Lesur, abounded in voices rubbing together at close, dissonant intervals.  Major seconds never sounded more sensuous.

For listeners not so attuned to the context of 16th-century music as to the 19th, there were Metcalfe’s heavy-breathing program notes (“…the endlessly unfolding, overlapping counterpoint is saturated with suspensions and pungent clashes…which create an atmosphere of amorous intoxication.”) to explain what was going on with Gombert–in an antiphon to the Blessed Virgin Mary, no less.

Ensembles of five and six singers respectively performed Gombert’s motets Ortus conclusus est (Thou art an enclosed garden) and Descendi in ortum meum (Come down into my garden) to texts from the Song of Songs, artfully “unfolding, overlapping” their entrances to create an ever-changing musical texture.

One realized that the dissonances were practically the whole story in this music, as functional harmony was then in its infancy, and to a modern listener a motet by Gombert gives the impression of circling around and around the same chord.

As Friday’s program demonstrated, later composers such as Daniel-Lesur, and even Fauré at times (not to mention Philip Glass!), saw the possibilities in the old non-harmonic harmonies and referred to that style in their own work.

At this first meeting of two of Boston’s most admired ensembles—blandly titled “Devotion,” when “Divine Yearning” might have said it better–the subject of collaboration came up a lot in the program book and remarks from the stage.  Not content simply to have the two groups take turns performing, or even perform a piece together, the program’s curator Jason Fisher (a violist with A Far Cry) actually interleaved the movements of an a capella choral work with those of a piece for strings—Daniel-Lesur’s Le Cantique des Cantiques and Symphonie d’archets by Jean Françaix, composed in 1952 and 1948 respectively—in a kind of mid-century French neo-Renaissance dialogue.

For a while, the combination worked as advertised in Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot’s program note, and Françaix’s silky, insinuating string symphony seemed uncannily to continue Daniel-Lesur’s musical thoughts in his Song of Songs settings.

However, as the ringing straight tone of Blue Heron grew in fervor like a burst of sunlight through a stained-glass window, the mildly jazzy and ironic interjections by A Far Cry sounded more and more incongruous, and following Daniel-Lesur’s ecstatic conclusion with Françaix’s flip finale felt anticlimactic.

On their own terms, each group did a fine job with its piece.  Blue Heron stacked up transparent sonorities gorgeously in the Daniel-Lesur, and A Far Cry danced and slid and charmed with the Françaix—for a while.  Though often associated with Les Six for his boulevardier attitude, this composer was no Poulenc, and his little witticisms tired the ear quickly.

Blue Heron’s historical orientation influenced the Fauré performance in more than just the style of tone.  Listeners long familiar with this Requiem might be surprised to learn that its original scoring was not for full orchestra but for a more modest ensemble of low strings (violas on top), horns, harp, timpani and organ.   Fauré’s original, not published until 1994, was the basis for Friday’s performance.

The clear, well-matched tone of singers, strings, and organ provided a less showy, more meditative atmosphere than the orchestral version.  One could appreciate the way the composer used the two horns sparingly, as exotic visitors to the scene, angels that gently but firmly called souls to the reckoning.

Another historical touch to this performance was the pronunciation of the Latin text, which, according to Metcalfe’s program note, followed the style used in France during Fauré’s lifetime. (Church Latin was spoken differently in every country until the Italian version was declared universal by the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65.)

Singing the Latin with its French coloration seemed to match the syllabic stresses to the notes a little better, helping the music flow, certainly a crucial characteristic of this meditative piece.

Although Fauré’s Requiem is famously not a work of high drama and strong contrasts à la Berlioz or Verdi, each movement has a definite character of its own, and the players and especially the singers were alert to all its nuances of expression.

At the same time, attention was paid to the overall ritual character of the piece, which kept expression of emotion subtle and within bounds.

This was especially true of the attractive, forthright solos by baritone David McFerrin, soprano Margot Rood, and bass Paul Guttry.  McFerrin in particular seemed to embody the slightly reedy tone, and poised but expressive diction, that one thinks of as French.

Some of that same character marked Robyn Bollinger’s solo violin responses in the Sanctus, wafting down from the church’s side balcony.

A Far Cry’s familiar feat of performing without a conductor was topped at this performance by a conductorless rendition of the Fauré by both orchestra and choir—with the singers, furthermore, arranged in a single arc on the chancel steps, with their backs to the orchestra.

How was this magic trick achieved?  Well, for one thing, the score held by soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad, standing at the end of the arc of singers, could be observed slightly bobbing, keeping time.

As for the performance’s flexible ensemble, balance, unity of expression, and musical insight, that existed somewhere in the space between the musicians, who had the sharp ears and open minds to snatch it and give it to the audience, whose response at the end was loud, unrestrained, and thus not very French.

A Far Cry will perform music of Penderecki, Pärt, Sibelius, and Väsen, 4 p.m. Feb. 6 at St. John’s Church, Jamaica Plain, and 1:30 p.m. Feb.7 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  afarcry.org; 617-553-4887.

Blue Heron will perform sacred music and songs from England, c. 1490-1540, 8 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Village Church, Wellesley, and 8 p.m. Feb. 6 at First Church in Cambridge. blueheronchoir.org; (617) 960-7956.

Posted in Performances


One Response to “Worlds collide and converge with French program from A Far Cry and Blue Heron”

  1. Posted Jan 31, 2016 at 9:51 am by MaryBeth Alger

    HI David, A beautifully written and very interesting review! So nice to meet you Friday night!