IN: Reviews

Okeghem Weekend

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Blue Heron has finished its subscription season with an ambitious Okeghem Weekend which included several concerts and talks across many venues. It comes one year after the completion of the ensemble’s ambition Okeghem@600 project (2015-2023) in which they sang through all of Okeghem’s surviving works. Now that they have completed this monumental task, they will sing through some again, starting this past Saturday with a concert of their favorites. Heron first played the mass, the motet, most of the chansons at its project’s inaugural concert in February 2015, so this represents a ‘rebirth’ of sorts.

Okeghem’s Missa De plus en plus framed the concert, with the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo at the beginning and the Sanctus and Agnus dei at the end. For this work, the ensemble used all 11 singers, doubling up every part (with 3 voices on the soprano!). This is in-line with what we know about historical performance practice, but came as a bit of a surprise from the notoriously one-on-a-part group. The singers all brought the highest caliber of skill, and many passages sounded as though they were sung one-to-a-part. Their impeccable intonation and careful tuning of intervals produced an ethereal, homogenous tone without beats or vibrato that insured the music did not lose any intimacy in this choral presentation. The Gloria featured an extended duet from Kim Leeds and Aaron Sheehan and a trio from James Reese, Sumner Thompson, and Paul Guttry. The duo, towards the beginning, felt stoic with a passive beat which left room for the trio to intensify the movement with their impassioned recitation of the names of Jesus. It ended with the whole group singing no less nimbly than any small group had. The multiplicity of voices enhanced Okeghem’s long-held notes, and their sensitive phrasing elevated these drones into the echo of plainchant.

These break-out duets and trios dominated the texture of the later three ordinaries. Tim Parsons and James Reese shared the first duet in the Credo. The pair brilliantly delivered the line ‘God from God, light from light’ before crescendoing to an exquisite melismatic cadence on the work vero. After a bit of a lull around the spiritum sanctum, Kim Leeds, Aaron Sheehan, and Andrew Padgett gradually reënergized the movement through the enumeration of other beliefs. This led to a rather staggered reintroduction of the other voices with Sumner Thompson and Jason McStoots jumping in, followed by the rest of the singers for the final lines of the creed. The highlight of the Sanctus was its many melismas. Tim Parsons, James Reese, and Paul Guttry had an especially florid one on ‘gloria,’ and Kim Leeds and Andrew Padgett sang ‘domini’ so lovely that most singers smiled as it concluded. The Angus Dei ended both the mass and the concert. The full choir sang the last line after two different quartets delivered the first two. It all ended rather ominously with a dark ə vowel rounding off the word pacem.

The four-voice ballade, Mort, tu as mavré de ton dart ended the first half of the show by pitting James Reese as a soloist against a ‘three-baritones’ combo led by contratenor Aaron Sheehan. Reese presented the French text, a eulogy to Okeghem’s teacher, Binchois, with a silvery tenor coloratura that clearly stood out from the texture without outshining the trio. In response, the three tenors gingerly sang their Latin miserere text beneath him, careful not to distract the audience with their seemingly effortless production of organic lines. The dynamic texture exhibited a lovely push and pull, as Reese employed rubato only with the consent of all singers and the accompanists animated the music actively despite their subservient roles. Sheehan effectively mediated these two sides both through his voice, when he occasionally interjected a soaring tenor line between two of Reese’s, and also through his bodily gestures which gave just enough conducting to guide the shaping of the song. Flanking intermission, the motet Alma redemptoris mater utilized the full complement of singers to begin the second half. It was in this movement that I was most aware of the ensembles use of First Church in Cambridge’s reverb to cover their breaths. The effect was to create a seamless, angelic texture.

Three chansons with instrumental accompaniment completed the concert. Artistic director Scott Metcalfe and Allison Monroe played dueling fiddles for all the songs. The first, Binchois’s De plus en plus se renouvelle (which Okeghem quoted as the basis of the aforementioned mass), showcased Kim Leeds’s sparkling pewter cantus. The handout essays muse about what Okeghem’s contemporaries meant when they praised his music for its “sweetness;” perhaps they referenced his ability for flawlessly evolving the texture which he must have learned from this song, among his teacher’s others. The accompaniment from the fiddles was never stagnant as the two fluidly exchanged lines beneath the voice. They were careful only to subsume the voice when the composer bade them to, especially at the end of the even numbered lines. Okeghem’s own chansons, La despourveue et la bannye and Pour prison ne pour maladie, filled out the second half of the program with Sophie Michaux’s tender soprano. They are even ‘sweeter’ than Binchois’s. The fiddlers contributed as much expression to the work as the voice did, but in contrary ways. Where Metcalfe delivered his upper part with a focused tone that danced transparently with Michaux’s voice, Monroe laid into her long notes with a broad sound that profoundly captured the emotional images of ‘destitute and abandoned’ and viscerally expressed the guttural wail held back behind the words ‘my heart cannot forget you.’ Michaux’s singing was no less communicative, though her final, aching, wordless melisma (which feels as though it still goes on in my imagination) was, unfortunately, stomped out by the clappy audience’s over-enthusiastic congratulations.

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.

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1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Those mystified by the nonstandard spelling of the composer’s name, as I was, may be enlightened and possibly persuaded by this:

    https://www.blueheron.org/learn-more/ockeghem/ockeghem-or-okeghem/

    Comment by David Moran — April 18, 2024 at 2:38 pm

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