According to some fatalists’ interpretation of the Mayan calendar, yesterday was supposed to have been the end of the world, though others had seen it as the beginning of a new era. Last night, the longest of the year, Blue Heron sowed a melodious seed of hope and light in the tradition of Christmas in 15th century France, Burgundy and Cyprus. Prior to the performance in First Church Congregational in Cambridge, guest speaker Sean Gallagher gave a compelling lecture that evoked this small part of northwestern Europe—an area not as big as the State of Massachusetts—where generations of sophisticated composers produced such fine polyphonic, textual, and mathematical detail (in both foreground and background), which fit harmoniously with the aesthetic of the medieval tapestries that hung in their courts.
The remnants of civilizations past, in the form of architecture, art and music, remind us that we are not alone. They also tell the story of others who struggled through the darkness of winter and the hardships of violence and warfare. The region in which this music is conceived is north of Boston, and in the winter, the nights are longer than they are here. Gallagher pointed out that the Burgundian court moved frequently, and its musicians traveled wherever war took them, performing both as soldiers in battle and musicians at court. It was a world marked by scarcity in every form, in which its music, chapels and tapestries were meant to be experienced as “a glimmering jewel in a somber, cold, cavernous world… a glow inside to keep the darkness at bay.”
In honor of Advent and the winter solstice, dozens of candles dressed the altar to shine through a darkened full house. Two small floodlights shone down upon the singers opening with the plainchant O clavis David (antiphon for December 20), followed by Obrecht’s Factor orbis. Dramatic juxtaposition of foreground and background was employed as a group of singers at the back of the altar sang O virgo virginum in plainchant to the drone of vielle under the echo of the dimly lit, gold leaf dome that glowed in the darkness, leaving the listener both aurally and visually inspired with a sense of wonder and mystery. Six singers responded with a segue of the plainchant in a setting by Josquin Desprez. Three other singers were then illumined in the foreground as they sang Guillaume Du Fay’s Conditor alme siderum as the house lights slowly rose to pull us out of introspective Advent and into the exuberant Christmas section of the program.
As an audience member accustomed to Blue Heron’s conventional presentation of twelve or so singers in a row, donning various shades of subtle teals and blues, these atmospheric ploys in somber dress were used to great effect and set the tone for this program perfectly—both historically and emotionally, and accessibly. The only missing atmospheric was perhaps a hint of frankincense in the air, but vocally, the performers probably considered that lack a blessing.
There are essentially two consistent elements that make Blue Heron one of Boston’s early music treasures: impeccable intonation and exceptional blend. In both categories they were in top form. It seems to be a French characteristic that a richer register is preferred to the more ethereal boy soprano range found in the choral traditions of Italian and Anglo-Saxon regions. Occasionally that register didn’t quite sit as well with the basses as it might for a voice suited to the Rachmaninoff vespers, for example. Notably, there was a truly spectacular alchemical blend between Jennifer Ashe and countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf, making the alto line like velvet when they were matched together. Pamela Dellal displayed an impressive stylistic range utilizing a very different voice from what she would have employed as a Bach cantata soloist. Her timbre was indistinguishable a countertenor in her sensitive and impeccable rendition of Baude Cordier’s Ce jour de l’an. Tenor Mark Sprinkle had a couple of lovely moments in which a subtle vibrato came across not as stylistically inappropriate or unblended, but simply gave his tone and the musical line a moment of buoyant shimmer. All of the small, male ensembles were beautifully blended and executed.
At the end of Johannes Ciconia’s Gloria Spiritus et alme was a beautiful Amen that, although stylistically completely different with no discernibly direct influence, was like an auspicious portent in which I was reminded of the Easter section finale of Handel’s Messiah. One could delight in imagining the possibility of an idea being borrowed from one generation to the next evolving over the course of centuries.
Director Scott Metcalfe’s program notes provided insight into the complex, superimposed texts and polyphony of these pieces when he wrote, “Several lines from Hodie puer nascitur offer an apt analogy for the mystical mood of these motets, their complicated mathematical structure, and the way they contain a surfeit of meanings, more than one can apprehend just by listening, by reading, by studying, or by singing:
Thus two things created with a double
nature produce one unique thing,
with the multiple grace
of the distinct parts;
but the third and uncreated thing
has made a [work]
such as heaven’s grace
had not yet made.
In this concert that third element was our comfort in a healing promise: Even in the darkest most violent regions of the world, the light will someday return.
In that spirit, Blue Heron did not succumb to fatalistic Mayan expectations of an apocalypse, and thus will be performing this concert again tonight December 22nd at 8pm at the First Church in Cambridge Congregational on Garden Street. Since the world had not yet ended when I wrote this, attendance is highly recommended.