Packed with Blue Heron’s ardent admirers, First Congregational Church, Cambridge witnessed “Cantores y ministriles: Music in Seville in the Golden Age on Saturday. All of the things that make Blue Heron’s concerts wonderful—the gorgeous singing, engaging pre-concert lectures (Professor Michael Noone), excellent program notes (by music director Scott Metcalfe), and music few of us had heard or even known about—were there, along with the distinguished early music woodwind ensemble, Dark Horse Consort.
Seville’s famed cathedral, the third largest church in the world and the biggest cathedral, constructed on the former site of the city’s principal mosque, took 100 years to complete (1506). The great Spanish composers, Francisco de Peñalosa, Cristobal de Morales, Francisco Guerrero, and Alonso Lobo were associated with Seville and its cathedral, built, according to local tradition, to be so grand and so beautiful “that those who see it finished will consider us madmen.” Seville was also known, before 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain, as home to 23 synagogues.
Metcalfe’s elaborate and erudite program notes provide indispensable for understanding the historical context and roots of each concert’s music. Here, he gives multiple examples of the “rich culture of homage and imitation among musicians” and imparts much that would be of great interest to those fascinated by music history. But one can easily enjoy Blue Heron concerts without knowing a thing. The singers, many of whom have been in Blue Heron for long stretches of its 17 seasons, seem very happy working together, and the instrumentalists are always first-class, resulting in consistently exquisite, captivating, and delightful shows and recordings.
One of the Cathedral of Seville’s charms was its ensemble of ministriles altos:
Players of ‘loud’” wind instruments such as shawms and sackbuts, which was established by the chapter in 1526- one of Europe’s first wind bands on staff at an ecclesiastical institution.
As the century progressed, Spanish wind bands added bajón (bass dulcian) and cornets to the shawms and sackbuts, and the ensemble of minstrels became an indispensable and characteristic part of the sound of sacred music in Spain.
These ministriles of Seville were instrumental, so to speak, in getting people to come into the “divine services in the holy church” according to a 1553 document. Dark Horse Consort, who some readers might have heard last year at the Boston Early Music Festival’s performances of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers and Orfeo, performed five solo pieces and distinguished themselves admirably. (Kiri Tollaksen and Alexandra Opsahl cornets; Priscilla Herreid, shawm and dulcian; Gred Ingles, Eric Schmalz, and Mack Ramsey, sackbuts). By the crowd gathered around her at intermission it would appear that Herreid and her dulcian were a big hit; in songs where just Herreid played with singers, her playing was quite lovely. The other players were similarly impressive.
Soprano Margot Rood, countertenor Martin Near, tenors Michael Barrett, Jason McStoots, and Mark Sprinkle, along with bass-baritone Paul Guttry opened with six songs from the Cancionero de Palacio (compiled after 1500), a storehouse of five hundred musical items held in the library of the Royal Palace of Madrid. Songs would feature one to six singers, some a cappella, others with instrumental accompaniment. Throughout, there was a deep sensitivity to both dynamics and texts. Intonation and rhythm were impeccable, and both the singers and instrumentalists brought these mostly unknown works to life with great spirit. Margot Rood’s always exceptionally clear, moving, and soaring soprano provided some of the evening’s highlights. “Nuncio feu pena maior” (Never was there greater sorrow) by Juan de Urrede (fl. 1451-c. 1482) with Rood and Metcalfe on harp, was the high point, and last piece, of the first half. Another delightful offering was Francisco Guerrero’s (d. 1599) “Que been año” from his 1589 Canciones y villanescas spirituals, performed by Rood and two cornettos. The concert’s second half featured sacred music by Alonso Lobo (1555-1617), Francisco Guerrero (1528-99), Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500-1553), and finally, a masterwork for all the performers, “Magnificat sexti toni by Sebastián de Vivanco (c.1551-1622).
Once again, Blue Heron has performed mostly unknown music of the 15th and 16th centuries with immediacy, intelligence, and heartfelt musicality. Their collaboration with Dark Horse Consort was enjoyable, but I generally prefer to hear the magnificent voices of these singers without any instruments, except, perhaps, for the quirky harp Metcalfe has come to play so well.