Hope is the thing with feathers when Blue Heron perches in the soul.
A nine-strong contingent from the Renaissance vocal ensemble drew a full crowd to First Church in Cambridge Saturday for the group’s ninth installment of its Ockeghem@600 concert series. The ambitious multi-year commemoration leading up to the 600th anniversary of Johannes Ockeghem’s c. 1420 birth encompasses the Franco-Flemish composer’s complete oeuvre. This episode featured that most canonical of canons upon canons, Missa Prolacionum, as well as several of Ockeghem’s secular chansons and Ave Maria, gemma virginum by Jean Mouton.
Before and during the concert, NEC professor Sean Gallagher, who advises the Ockeghem@600 project, and ensemble director Scott Metcalfe both waxed eloquent on the monumental complexity of the mathematically rigorous, musically resplendent Missa Prolacionum. We all know canons from nursery school tunes such as Frère Jacques and Pachelbel’s ubiquitous earworm, where the same tune repeats at a stagger to generate self-referential harmony and contrapuntal architecture. The Missa Prolacionum stands as a methodological museum of the multitudinous ways this seemingly simple concept can play out, with the same tune at different intervals, with different time signatures, here in duet, there in trio, one entwined ensemble drawing another into its orbit.
In between passages of music, Metcalfe and his singers broke down the basic building blocks in short demonstrations. The infectious enthusiasm and engaging manner of Metcalfe’s explanations recalled that favorite math teacher who made fascinating puzzles out of problem sets: If two trains depart the station on parallel tracks at the same time, one going 100 mph, the other 120 mph, then as they draw apart X distance another two trains follow, and then another on the elevated track and another on the subterranean … well, how far can they all go before a derailment or colossal trainwreck ensues?
If such a breaking point exists, it was nowhere in sight as Blue Heron took wing.
At once cerebral, sensitive, and sensual, the ensemble exhibited perfect blend and balance in various configurations, all the more remarkable as the individual voices are by no means uniform. In the tenor section alone, Michael Barrett’s fresh tang of a citrus twist, Jason McStoots’s celestial high-wafting cirrus, Mark Sprinkle’s peony-petal caress, and Sumner Thompson’s amber radiance each contributed unique character and coloration. Soprano Margot Rood, mezzo-soprano Kim Leeds, and countertenor Martin Near shone with fluid warmth in honey-gold, burnished copper, and crystal tones respectively. Bass-baritones Paul Guttry and Peter Walker both brought a gentle generosity to cushion their colleagues. As much as for impeccable musicianship, all — and perhaps director Metcalfe above all — deserve applause for supreme self-awareness of when to deploy which voices most effectively, how to augment or anchor each other, who ought step back while another soars.
The immensely intricate Missa Prolacionum is already a trove unto itself, the treasures of which the singers unpacked and passed around with paramount care and polish. Ockeghem’s secular chansons offered the opportunity to prance on grass and dirt and let loose more personal style. In addition to the charming, even coquettish three-voice “Prenez sur moi vostre exemple amoureux” (Take from me your amorous example), some strange and very rare birds alighted. “Ung aultre l’a, n’en querés plus” (Another has it, seek it no more) contains utterly incomprehensible text, but musically sings of all the love and beauty the wide world could wish to hold. Even for this track alone, I cannot wait for Blue Heron to release recordings of Ockeghem’s woefully underperformed secular work.
At 600 years young and vivid as ever, Ockeghem has found in Blue Heron a worthy interpreter and advocate.