in: Reviews

March 16, 2009

Blue Heron: Artistry and Veracity in Revival of Dufay

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The interdependence between musical practice and historical research is nowhere more conspicuous than in the music of the Renaissance. It is a fitting tradition, then, that the Blue Heron Renaissance Choir conceptualizes their concert programs in ways that not only delight audiences with masterful performances but also give audiences a healthy dose of historical insight into a widely misunderstood period of music.

The unifying concept of Blue Heron’s Friday evening program on March 13, entitled “Dufay, Savoy, and the Island of Cyprus” was quite straightforward: in 1434, the King of Cyprus’s daughter went to Savoy to marry the son of the duke. The festivities resulted in connections between multiple musical styles from different regions. The program featured various selections from Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois, and anonymous works from Cyprus found in the manuscript that accompanied the bride to Savoy.

The concert began with a splendid performance of Dufay’s Supremum est mortalibus bonum, followed by Isti sunt due olive. Highlighting the versatility of the musicians, Scott Metcalfe, after conducted the first two pieces, picked up a vielle and joined Daniela Tosic and Mark Sprinkle in the first of two works by Binchois for smaller subsections of the group. It is in these works for two or three voices that the unbelievable blending ability of the singers shines through. The first half of the program ended with the larger group returning for the first example the anonymous Cypriot works, featuring a much more lyrical flow and lugubrious feel than the earlier works.

During intermission, the Cambridge Society for Early Music honored a special guest, Alejandro Enrique Planchart, with the Arion Award, honoring him for his contributions to the field. Professor Planchart is the leading scholar on the music of Dufay, and a veteran of the field of Renaissance musicology. The value of Planchart’s research and its application to these kinds of performances cannot be understate; without the stimulation of interest in Early Music by Planchart and his contemporaries, performances by groups like Blue Heron would be utterly lacking in historical accuracy.

The second half began with more of the haunting sonorities of works found in the Cyprus manuscript. In a mirror-like order of the first half, Blue Heron then performed selections from a Binchois Mass, and closed with a few more works of Dufay’s. Puisque vous estez campieur was an explosion of energy. Though only featuring two singers and Scott Metcalfe on vielle, the song easily gained the loudest applause of the evening. Lydia Knutson and Aaron Sheehan performed Dufay’s wildly difficult piece with an endearing sense of playfulness and vigor. Never has a drinking song sounded so musical.

The concert concluded with the Credo of Dufay’s Missa Se la face ay pale, one of his most celebrated works, a Mass based on the melodies of his secular song of the same name. The director preceded the performance with a wonderful explanation of the structure of the piece by having the trombone player play the tenor, a melodic line that is the main building block of the entire composition. It was pleasing to hear the ensemble not only commit to a fine performance of the work, but help the audience to understand better the archaic and unfamiliar form of music.

I was, of course, eager to hear Planchart’s opinion of the concert after the second half.

“The performance was magnificent,” Planchart said without any hint of hesitation. “Furthermore, this is the first performance I’ve heard of any movement of [ Dufay’s Missa] Se la face ay pale at what I regard as the right tempos for that piece . . . you could hear that the Mass… sounds like it was written by the same guy who wrote the songs.”

Blue Heron has proven that they can draw crowds and instill interest in Early Music. Every concert I have attended has packed the First Congregational Church of Cambridge. Their performance standard is second-to-none. With their commitment to audience engagement, performance quality, and historical veracity that awes even the most scrupulous of experts, Blue Heron sets the standard for the presentation of Renaissance vocal music.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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