At 8:00 on the evening of Friday, 16 December, in the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, Blue Heron performed a program called “Christmas in Medieval England.” It was splendidly entertaining, containing such a variety of genres and styles that I am at a loss to know where to begin. The best I can say is to advise anyone interested to go to the second performance tonight, same place, same time, and enjoy it for themselves.
The program is a mosaic of 17 pieces ranging from the 13th to the 15th centuries: hymns, motets, carols (old English carols, not the standard modern handful — the entertainment of clerics and musicians, strophic songs mixing Latin and English), and a scattering of mass-movements. Such a continually varying program, combined with continually changing forces (ranging from a solo song with harp to a full choir of eleven), and really exemplary use of the space (both in terms of placement and acoustics) available in the Church, made for a highly pleasurable evening.
The First Church is so resonant a space that it can cause difficulties for the unwary or acoustically negligent performer. Blue Heron used the resonance as gracefully as a seagull uses the wind to fly. The last notes of plaintive phrases floated and faded exquisitely, and the quick complex rhythms of Dunstaple’s isorhythmic motet Gaude virgo salutata/Gaude virgo singularis and the jolly bounce of carols like Nowell syng we bothe al and som or the charming encore, Nova, Nova came through with equal clarity and crispness. They also used the space to excellent effect in terms of staging: the hymns which opened and closed the first half, Veni, veni, Emanuel and Veni redemptor gencium, and the introit which opened the second half, Dominus dixit ad me, were performed with the church plunged into darkness apart from the candlelit altar at the end around which the few singers were gathered. The transitions from one piece to the next were smooth and elegant; as the last notes of the opening hymn faded, the second piece, Angelus ad virginem, a 13th-century monophonic song performed with harp accompaniment, began in darkness, and the lights rose gradually as the song progressed.
I have only one reservation about the evening. Cruel though it sounds — since one of the consequences would be that some people would be denied the pleasure of attending — I would suggest that the number of seats per pew be reduced. Removing just one person from each row would make it slightly easier to breathe. As it was, the pews were so squashed that even when everyone sat with shoulders tightly hunched, it was impossible to clap vigorously without belaboring your neighbors’ ribs unmercifully. The applause was thunderous all the same — but largely because the audience discovered that they could safely stomp. I am sure the audience would gladly have given an equally enthusiastic standing ovation, had it been possible to rise. But we were so wedged that it would have been impossible to rise unless the entire row did so as a unit. And that would have taken as much precise and accurate ensemble-work as Blue Heron had just displayed.