Blue Heron choir mystifies and enchants in 15th-century Christmas program

December 20, 2014 at 2:02 pm

By David Wright

Scott Metcalfe led Blue Heron in a Renaissance Christmas program Friday night at First Church in Cambridge.

In 15th-century France as in 21st-century Boston, this thing we call “the holiday season” meant many things, as the vocal group Blue Heron amply and expressively demonstrated Friday night in a sold-out concert at the First Church (Congregational) in Cambridge.

Theological meditations, gift-giving, amorous pursuits, and celebrating the sun’s turning the corner toward spring were all part of it, and the sophisticated poets and composers of Europe’s courts were quick to find the metaphorical links that added still more layers of meaning.

Today, rediscovering all that meaning is the work of a few individuals such as the scholar-musician Scott Metcalfe, Blue Heron’s music director.  Metcalfe– who conducts the singers when necessary (on Friday, not often), accompanies them on harp, writes the program notes, and probably picks up the group’s dry cleaning—made a brave attempt in the program book to conjure up the world that generated Friday’s music, and his essay made rewarding reading.

But in the end, most listeners today can’t tell a Christmas tree from a maypole in the music of, say, Guillaume Du Fay.  Those old seasonal tunes, as familiar and comforting to his audience as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is to us, don’t have the same effect any more.

It takes nothing away from the superb performances in Friday’s concert to note that the group used a bit of stagecraft to engage those devotional and seasonal emotions in a modern audience.

To begin with, they performed in a church.  Not only did the resonant acoustics of First Church take their lucid sound and envelop the audience with it, but the building’s cruciform plan and soaring arches provided a visual environment that hasn’t changed fundamentally in five centuries, or fifteen.

Modern conveniences such as electric lights and dimmer switches helped to evoke ancient sensations.  Except for candles in the chancel, the concert began in near-total darkness—not good for following the Latin text in one’s program, but excellent for experiencing the anticipation of “the coming of the light” in Advent music by Jacob Obrecht and Josquin Desprez.

As Du Fay’s Advent hymn and an Ave Maria by Antoine Brumel vibrated in the air, a soft light diffused through the chancel, and finally, to close the program’s first half, it was lights-up for Brumel’s splendid Christmas Day anthem Nato canunt omnia.

Musically—yes, we are getting to that—the style progressed from dense, layered, and allusive in the lengthy Obrecht and Desprez works to a more open sound for smaller ensembles.  Intensely focused and fervent singing gave way, in the Du Fay piece and the Ave Maria, to charming and expressive trios for high men’s voices and women’s voices, respectively.

In most cases, a group of singers “upstage” (i.e., near the altar) introduced the plainchant melody before the composition based on it was sung.  Or, following an old practice, verses of the chant alternated with verses of its elaboration.

The chants, all performed with an easy sweep that sounded as natural as breathing, achieved considerable variety in phrasing and in tone, ranging from a murmur of male and female voices to a roar of four guys sounding like 40.

Throughout the evening, the singers’ impeccable tuning and blend made the music’s archaic idiom—familiar major and minor chords sliding together with a different logic than today’s—seem perfectly comprehensible and right.

The unfamiliar yet fascinating blend of rich sonorities and gnarly bits was epitomized, early in the concert’s second half, in Adrian Willaert’s Christmas piece Prater rerum seriem.  In a chamber-music-style performance without conductor, seven male singers in effect conducted themselves, cuing individual threads of the seven-part counterpoint to pop out and weave back in again while maintaining an exquisite balance overall.

Following the Willaert, corks popped and theology gave way to romance as the New Year’s Day portion of the program got under way.  That was the cue for the instruments to come out: Metcalfe’s small harp, Charles Weaver’s lute, and Laura Jeppesen’s two Renaissance fiddles, a violin-sized one and a Suzuki version held in the crook of the arm.

According to Metcalfe’s notes, it was the custom of the time at court to compose poems and songs of praise as New Year’s gifts to ladies, and several of these were charmingly rendered by individual singers from the group, including Daniela Tosič, Stefan Reed, and Martin Near.

The real find in this segment, for this listener at least, was a men’s quartet, Dame excellent ou sont beauté, scavoir by Baude Cordier, a composer whose dates aren’t known for sure, but who predated all the others on this program.  Ancient though he was, Cordier was on to something; his song was boldly contrapuntal, richly harmonized, and it swung.

A more robust but equally forward-looking celebration of guyness was Johannes Ciconia’s Gloria spiritus et alme, the first of two Christmas pieces that closed the program.  Another oldie, Ciconia was born about 1370, but in this piece took a back seat to no one in intricate counterpoint and harmonic daring.  A male quartet boomed out the chant and its cantus-firmus elaboration in alternating verses.

Now, just for a moment, imagine that all the German church cantatas of the 18th century had been left in a trunk somewhere and nobody knew about them for five hundred years.  To read Metcalfe’s account of a single manuscript containing music performed on the island of Cyprus around 1400, the discovery of that unique artifact must have been like opening that imaginary German trunk.

In a case of musicological “Who knew?”, the island dukedom, ruled at the time by a French noble family, was revealed to have a rich literary and musical culture influenced by the French court.  Furthermore, the Cypriot composers, none of whose names are recorded in the manuscript, were easily the equals of their mainland counterparts, judging from the isorhythmic motet Hodie puer nascitur/Homo mortalis, which concluded the program.

As if the simultaneous singing of two different poetic texts weren’t enough, the music bristling with cross-rhythms, swirling melismas, and hiccupy hockets took this piece to another plane of philosophical and mathematical complexity that made it “all but impossible to understand,” as Metcalfe acknowledged in his notes.

To add to the mystery, the ensemble of three men and three women sang the piece far upstage in the apse, so that their sound reached the listener more as resonance than as voices.

And you know what?  It was beautiful.  Weird, knotty, baffling, boggling, and beautiful.

The capacity audience (where but in Boston?) loved it, and many were on their feet at the end.  For an encore, all the evening’s performers–singers and players alike–stood in a line and sang a robust carol with solo verses, which this reviewer learned was composed by Anonymous in the 14th century.

But by this time, the who, where, and when had been pretty much blown away by the what.  To all, a merry and mysterious Christmas and a happy and poetic New Year.

The program will be repeated today at 2:30 p.m.; 617-960-7956.

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