From the first few mellifluous, opening notes of Sebastián de Vivanco’s Sicut lilium inter spinas, (Like a lily among thorns), listeners were hooked by the singing of 16th-century Spanish love songs by Blue Heron. Director Scott Metcalfe is a master, not only at eliciting ravishingly beautiful tones from his singers but also at effective programming subtleties like this. The serendipitous opportunity for a roving Bostonian to review a performance in a faraway land (so to speak) of this Boston-based group occurred last night in Berkeley, CA — in time for its later presentation in Boston tomorrow, June 9th, at the First Church Congregational in Cambridge.
Blue Heron’s appearance was part of the 11th biennial Berkeley Festival and Exhibition devoted — though not clear from the title — to performance of “early music.” With the invitation to participate, Blue Heron, which performs its series regularly in Boston and New York City, is infiltrating the West Coast. Its debut performance was at San Luis Obispo in 2008, but yesterday, it added Berkeley to the list, and, as one of the organizers said after the concert, “They will be back.”
The concert, titled Song of Songs / Songs of love, was divided into six sections, each lbeginning with a dramatic reading of one of the Songs of Solomon followed by three to six songs of sacred polyphony or love songs by the 16th century’s prominent Spanish composers, Juan Vásquez, Francisco Guerrero, Francisco de la Torre, and Tomás Luis de Victoria. A few songs were by anonymous composers. One of the most delightful, in fact, was the anonymous Si la noche haze escura, from Villancicos de diversos Autores, published in 1556.
The opening and final songs, and two others, were sung by the entire group, with the majority sung by different combinations of singers, from three to six. Again, one marvels at Metcalfe’s balance of voices, how a preponderance of men, with only three women, worked with the use of countertenors. And how the different combinations provided such variety of tone. Blue Heron soars in interpretation; its luxuriating sound of these songs of love washed over one, its swells, falls, and pauses so deeply sensuous. And those final notes — always so mesmerizing, so satisfying.
The singers’ enunciation was so perfect that one could detect the few variations from the printed text, such as “Et lillium instead of “Et lillia…”; the narrator of the Songs of Solomon, actress Kateri Chambers, also did a superb job, except when her voice fell to a whisper and was lost — once, for a key phrase.
Accompanying several songs was a bajón played by Marilyn Boenau; her role was doubling the bass singers, Metcalfe noted. “They did this is so routinely in the 16th century, so it melts right in and adds a reedy quality.” Although the bajón (Spanish for dulcian) blended into the sung lines enough to be often almost undecipherable, it did have a moment of glory, in the final note of Trahe me post te by Guerrero.
Most in the audience had not previously heard Blue Heron. Many, perhaps, were not familiar enough with the genre to laugh at some of the sardonic lines, such as the end of Lope de Vega’s No sabe qué es amor quien no te ama (He knows not what love is who doesn’t love you): “I shall make such haste that one hour of love/will overcome the years I spent in feigning.” But sales of Blue Heron’s CDs at intermission were brisk.
On those readings of the Songs of Solomon — the texts are so personal that one feels a bit voyeuristic. This might be a legacy from four years of Biblical history at Northfield School for Girls, where, when the subject of the songs came up, we were told, “They are NOT assigned!” (So much for how they were understood as long as 60 years ago). But Metcalfe’s superb program notes point out how these erotic poems most probably managed to survive — by being interpreted (by generations of monks?) as allegorical references to love for the Virgin Mary and at some point, by being “assigned” to one of the most revered figures of the Old Testament. In one delightful comment, Metcalfe muses on one such song with heavily erotic images, “Language like this addressed to the Mother of God signals a marvelously expansive concept of the divine.”
Nonetheless, the main point of the program, Metcalfe continues, is “to sing love songs to God as well as to one another.” It worked.
Bettina A. Norton is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and has been attending classical music concerts since the waning years of World War II.