Beverly Sills and Carol Burnett. Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. …Or Rosa Passos. …Or Lil’ Buck.
For that matter, lamb and mint jelly. Prosciutto e melone. Sea salt and caramel. Pairings that seem decidedly odd on paper, yet make a kind of inspired sense when experienced together.
So it was with Friday evening’s concert in the Old South Church that united two Boston musical powerhouses: A Far Cry, the Grammy-nominated, boundary-shattering chamber orchestra, and Blue Heron, the award-winning Renaissance vocal ensemble as renowned for superlative musicianship as for historically-informed integrity. Aptly titled Devotion, the eclectic program of French and Franco-Flemish works from the 16th, 19th and 20th centuries revolved around sacred themes that blurred lines between life and death, the mundane and the ethereal, the spiritual and the sensual. This complex, heady mixture resulted in a not-always seamless but consistently riveting interplay between two distinct yet unexpectedly compatible entities, divided by style and disposition but joined in a relentless pursuit of excellence and deep engagement with their repertoires.
With Blue Heron alone on the stage, proceedings began with an exceptionally fine reading of two motets by Gombert, both of which evocatively reinvent texts from the Song of Songs as antiphons to the Virgin Mary. The vocal line bloomed and gained in richness as Ortus conclusus unfolded, dying away at the close with a flawless decrescendo that can only be described—sacrilegiously, if in keeping with the text—as sexy. Descendi in ortum meum featured more complex polyphony, delivered with Blue Heron’s signature instinctive, almost telepathic unity.
At the close of this opening benediction, A Far Cry charged in, cavalry-style, greeted by an unabashedly exuberant crowd, taking their places as Devotion’s program curator and Crier violist Jason Fisher offered words of welcome. The most conceptually ambitious portion of the program followed, as A Far Cry spliced the four movements of Jean Françaix’s Symphonie d’archets between the seven movements of Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur’s take on the Song of Songs (Le Cantique de Cantiques) rendered by Blue Heron.
In a recent conversation with BMInt, Fisher and Blue Heron director Scott Metcalfe spoke of this intertwining as a “flirtation” between the groups; the description is perhaps more accurate in concept than in execution. While the texts and Daniel-Lesur’s settings are decidedly sensuous, stage logistics made this segment play more as an orderly call-and-response sequence than as a taut, urgent exchange of bids. Vocalists were obliged to exit and re-enter before and after each instrumental movement, resulting in pacing that felt too deliberate to sustain effective tension. It might also have been more compelling to end the segment with the metallic cry of “Alleluia” that closes the Cantique rather than with the more relaxed, less decisive final movement of the Symphonie; in context, the latter felt something like an afterthought.
That said, the two works complemented each other in intriguing ways. The hypnotic, ghostly opening movement of the Cantique was both pervasive and distant; it rang in the ears like the words of a long-lost love. The Criers delivered a pensive reading of Françaix’s decidedly more present first movement in reply. Throughout the exchange, Blue Heron relished Daniel-Lesur’s give-and-take between consonance and dissonance, his often sleepy, ever-ethereal utterances interspersed with flashes of light. The exulting vocalists carried the audience aloft, transcending physical and metaphysical boundaries, erasing the lines between religious and sexual ecstasy; it thus fell to the instrumentalists to keep returning us gently back onto firm ground.
For the second half of the program, Fauré’s Requiem constituted the evening’s central challenge and greatest success. Metcalfe noted that despite being an early music group, Blue Heron loves the chance to do new music, “by which,” he quipped, “I mean the Requiem.” The choice to present the work in its original, relatively spare 1893 orchestration made the choice of this particular choir even more appropriate; the rigorous discipline and precision required of early music singers well suits an arrangement in which vocalists are comparatively exposed. Moreover, the reduced forces better suited a church setting. With characteristic attention to historical detail, the Herons employed the French-inflected Latin pronunciations Fauré would have had in mind while setting the text. In program notes, Metcalfe remarked that this choice not only improves the fluidity of the melodic line, but also “[lends] a characteristically French elegance and refinement to this perfectly poised, most serene Requiem.”
The performance itself fully lived up to that description. What the vocalism and orchestration may have lacked in lush, languid late-Romantic sinuousness was more than made up for in precision, clarity and luminosity of tone. Blue Heron’s Renaissance sensibilities lent Venetian Gothic Revival Old South Church the stately dignity of a great cathedral; there was a kind of verticality to the delivery of the vocal line that seemed to send the harmony up through the cupola and straight into heaven. The first moments proclaimed all that was to come, as the choir prayed “Requiem Aeternam” with seraphic purity as though speaking to and from a world beyond the clouds. At the movement’s close, otherworldly voices intoning “eleison” melted into the organ’s deep bass, echoed by the distant thunder of Andre Sonner’s timpani.
As with the Daniel-Lesur/Françaix mashup in the first act, A Far Cry anchored the Requiem to earth with warm, graceful yet ardently expressive utterances. It is hard to overstate the effectiveness of the string players’ performance in particular; more than once I felt the breath catch in my chest as they deilvered passages of exquisite refinement and aching tenderness. Individual performances by Criers and “guest Criers” stood out for excellence; organist George Sargeant made an instant impression with his powerful first entrance on the giant Skinner, and continued to fuel the combined ensemble with authoritative, subtle intensity throughout. Harpist Amanda Romano’s gracefully articulated phrases floated through the texture, sweetening the poignancy of the strings, among them the excellent violin soloist Robyn Bollinger. On the Heron side, soprano Margot Rood, baritone David McFerrin and bass-baritone Paul Guttry are to be commended for their accomplished solos. In all, the forces gave us a Requiem of sophisticated, indelible power; it was only in the extended silence that followed the final moments of “In Paradisum” that one realized how completely these musicians had transported us.
One of the most important yet consistently overlooked benefits of collaborations such as this one is the felicitous intermingling of fans as well as players. It’s worth noting that individual members of Friday night’s audience seemed to identify chiefly by loyalty to one ensemble over another; I, for instance, have long admired Blue Heron but had never before attended a performance by A Far Cry, and was seated next to a mother and son who had little previous experience of Heron but were big fans of the Criers. Though I cannot speak conclusively for my seatmates, I’d venture to guess each side had gained new admiration of the other’s “team” by the evening’s end. What I can state with certainty is my regret at having taken so long to venture out to a concert by the Criers, and my firm intent to make up for lost time in coming seasons. As for Blue Heron—my enthusiasm for their artistry seems only to increase.