In a remarkable display of artistry, scholarship, and musicality, the Blue Heron Renaissance Choir presented works of Tomás Luis de Victoria and other Spanish Renaissance composers on Saturday, March 19 at First Church Congregational in Cambridge. The ensemble gave the same program at New York’s St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church the previous weekend. In addition to Victoria’s famous Officium Defunctorum, the group performed smaller works, including two settings of the hymn Lauda mater ecclesia, one by Francisco Guerrero (1528-99) and one by Victoria (c. 1548-1611).
When attending a Blue Heron concert, you must arrive early—not only because the house is likely to be packed, but to spend some time with director Scott Metcalfe’s program notes. I take the time to comment on these only because they are astonishingly fresh in style and beautifully researched. Rather than a pedantic listener’s guide, Metcalfe’s notes are steeped in history and draw connections between the works on the program, illuminating the fantastic concept behind each of Blue Heron’s concerts. I also attended the pre-concert talk delivered by Prof. Michael Noone of Boston College, who debunked a few inaccuracies and assumptions that have plagued Victoria’s biography and amplified Metcalfe’s scholarly and engaging program annotations.
And then there was the music.
It is a testament to the ensemble’s enormous gifts that the plainchant portions were so exquisitely sung in a concert otherwise filled with some of the most elegant and rich polyphony ever written. From the metric Iberian plainsong in Guerrero’s Lauda mater ecclesia to the freer speech-driven chant in Victoria’s setting of the same text, the unison chant was all at once delicate and expressive, with nuances seldom heard in performances by other early music ensembles. I can only hope that Blue Heron releases a plainchant recording sometime in the near future.
Scott Metcalfe’s style, both his persona and his conducting, serves Blue Heron well, as he eliminates pretension from the music and the performance while at the same time setting very high standards of professionalism. There is a sense of pure joy that rises out of the music-making and wraps itself around the audience. There was also no sense of waiting for the “big number” (the Victoria Requiem), so that each piece received the same level of care and attention. Because of this conscientious approach, the five-voice Ave virgo sanctissima by Guerrero stood out as one of many magical moments of the evening. With a quotation of the Salve Regina chant quietly tucked into the texture (a chant which subtly tied together several of the works on the program), the work had almost modern harmonic flair and displayed tremendous sensitivity to the text. Guerrero, unlike Victoria, wrote secular songs in addition to a large corpus of sacred music, and there was an emotional momentum to the motet that seemed unfettered by liturgical constraint or consideration. The voice of Jason McStoots shone in this piece, with expressive energy and crafted brilliance
At no time was there any soloistic grandstanding by any of the outstanding performers, but there were several voices that deserve special mention. Paul Guttry’s sonorous bass lines not only anchored the polyphony (sometimes with the added treat of Daniel Stillman on the dulcian), but lent a velvety texture to both the full ensemble and small group singing. Zachary Wilder’s altus lines soared effortlessly in and out of the stratosphere, particularly in Victoria’s Magnificat. Daniela Tošic and Pamela Dellal’s voices provided consistent color and richness of tone as well. In Victoria’s Salve Regina for eight voices, Shari Wilson’s cantus streamlined the polyphony that blossomed out of the chant incipit. In the same piece, the plaintive invocation (“Eia ergo, advocata nostra/illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte”) of the eight-voice ensemble was truly one of the most poignant moments of the evening. But there were more to come.
The Magnificat sexti toni (for 12 voices) was a polychoral wonder in its variety of texture, even within each of the three “choirs.” The stirring antiphonal excitement of the outer choirs at the “Fecit potentiam in brachio suo” highlighted the famous textual evocation of God’s strength. Metcalfe brought new life to the doxology, ending the work with an “in secula seculorum” that one hoped might resonate without end.
It was, however, Victoria’s Officium Defunctorum that was the concert’s main event. There was the tiniest sense of fatigue in some of the tenor entrances and in the Offertorium, but the performance as a whole was intensely soulful. The cadences were impeccable — Metcalfe never held them past the point of exacting beauty. The ensemble brought out every possible expressive phrase of the text, from a pleading “exaudi” to a caressed “et lux perpetua.” When the “Requiem aeternam” text returned in the Gradual, the sonorities were perfect and unrushed, indeed shining with perpetual light. The shimmering textures of the Introit and Gradual were beautifully contrasted by the luxurious density of the motet “Versa est in luctum.”
Blue Heron performed the entire work with breathtaking passion, but it was the final phrase of the “Kyrie eleison” that seemed to stop time. The emotional impact of this final goodbye seemed to touch Metcalfe as well, who was visibly moved when he released the blissful silence and turned to face the standing audience. In his notes, Metcalfe remarked upon Victoria’s colleague who praised the work as “the lament of Orpheus for Eurydice.” Metcalfe claimed, “It is very much worth wondering how the piece might work such wonders, but I don’t think I can offer any convincing answers.” That’s where he’s wrong.