Ockeghem Keeps Packing Them in for Herons
Virginia Newes, The Boston Musical Intelligencer | October 15, 2017
Singing without conductor, these well-rehearsed singers were so attuned to one another, and so deeply immersed in the subtleties of 15th-century polyphonic interweaving, as to make it sound completely natural and inevitable….
This was a truly glorious ending to a glorious evening. Looking down from his perch in the firmament of great composers as he approaches the 600th anniversary of his presumed date of birth, Johannes Ockeghem can safely conclude that his music is alive and well. Read the full review >
Blue Heron opens Music Before 1800 season with subtle Ockeghem
David Wright, New York Classical Review | October 2, 2017
In all configurations, the singers meshed flawlessly without a conductor….
In the program’s second half, the ensemble singing reached still loftier heights of execution, beginning with Firminus Caron’s mellow drinking song “Cent mille ecuz” (A hundred thousand ecus) and its suggestion of hiccups and dancing, continuing with the final three movements of the Missa Au travail suis in styles that ranged from complex polyphony to brick-wall homophony, and culminating in the melancholy phrases of Ockeghem’s song “Ma maistresse,” articulated in exquisitely-timed pauses and soft attacks, the singers seeming to breathe as one. Read the full review >
This Week’s 8 Best Classical Music Moments: Unfamiliar and Luscious
David Allen, The New York Times | May 5, 2017
One of the most valuable recording projects of recent years, in early music at least, has been the vocal ensemble Blue Heron’s survey of English choral music from the reign of Henry VIII, archived in the Peterhouse Partbooks. Few of the composers of the generation before Byrd are well-known names, and their music unsettles ears tuned to the flowing delights of later years: The counterpoint is cloudier, the phrases often stop rather than conclude, and the harmony is sometimes frankly weird. But near the end of this precisely sung concert under Scott Metcalfe, at First Church in Cambridge, Mass., celebrating the fifth volume of the choir’s series, there was a moment of revelation in Hugh Aston’s luscious “Ave Maria, dive matris Anne filia unica,” a sensation familiar from new-music concerts: the unfamiliar, clicking into familiarity.
Canterbury’s Loss, Heron’s Find
Virginia Newes, The Boston Musical Intelligencer| April 30, 2017
The long notes of the cantus firmus could be clearly heard against the more quickly moving parts as it migrated from the mean to the tenor and at one point even to the bass. Here Metcalfe’s ability to project long and rhythmically irregular melodic lines in the various voice parts with rhythmic verve and fluid dynamic shading came to the fore. This was particularly apparent in the many sections for two or three parts that contrasted with full-voiced scoring. Read the full review >
Machaut’s Remède de Fortune
Daniel Hathaway, Clevelandclassical.com| March 13, 2017
If this sounds like a dry music history lesson, it wasn’t. The music is beautiful, alternating between haunting and jolly, and the narration is engagingly colloquial (“He’s as clueless as a caged bird”). In addition to playing splendidly, the musicians displayed a wry sense of humor, imitating bird songs in a garden scene and making trumpet sounds to herald the beginning of a feast. The first “Kyrie” from Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame made you want to hear this group perform the whole setting. And Estampies that Nagy arranged from other Machaut tunes sounded completely authentic….[T]he program is a keeper. Eminently portable, even with projections, it should easily adapt itself to a variety of performing venues. And it makes a terrific introduction to a fascinating musical period that has been explored in academia, but whose artifacts rarely grace concert stages. Read the full review >
Blue Heron at Corpus Christi Church
Christian Carey, christiancarey.com| Dec. 26, 2016
Likely the earliest of the selections on the program (apart from the encore), Johannes Ciconia’s Gloria Spiritus et alme was redolent in Lydian cadences. The resulting raised fourths and heightened sense of dissonance gave Blue Heron the opportunity to show off their use of just intonation in particularly splendorous fashion. Chords shimmered and melodic lines underscored the slightly unequal nature of the temperament’s half steps. It made for an extraordinary sound world. On the other end of the chronological spectrum, Adrian Willaert’s Sixteenth century motet Praeter rerum seriem featured seven-voice counterpoint. The thickened textures contained chant in a three-voice canon and sumptuous doublings of chord tones from the other four voices. The performance was truly transportative. As Metcalfe’s informative program notes pointed out, the piece’s seven-voice texture had another component of showmanship besides the obvious requisite compositional virtuosity: it contains one more voice than Josquin’s motet on the same text.
The concert ended with an encore from the Fourteenth century: Laudemus cum Armonia. The entire cohort of musicians raised their voices in song, making a most thrilling sound. It was an impressive end to a superlative performance. Read the full review >
Blue Heron Takes Ockeghem to New Heights
Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe| October 17, 2016
Singing one voice to a part, Blue Heron brought a crystalline, occasionally astringent clarity to this four-part Mass. The performance was warm and dry, not always as rich as some, but the text was fully intelligible (not a given in this music) and the dizzying complexity of Ockeghem’s writing was transparent. The Kyrie began with the voices imitating a flutter of angel wings, as if to depict Gabriel’s arrival. In the “Christe eleison,” Mary seemed to speak before benedictions rained down upon her; the return of the “Kyrie eleison” brought fear but also reassurance. The remainder of the Mass took its cue from Mary’s answer: equal parts humility and radiant confidence. Read the full review >
Buoyant Ensemble Conquers Dangers
Virginia Newes, The Boston Musical Intelligencer | May 1, 2016
In an evening devoted to French courtly songs of the late 14th century, a group of musicians from the Blue Heron ensemble led by Scott Metcalfe demonstrated just how captivatingly expressive this music can be.[The performers’] mastery of Middle French diction and ars subtilior rhythm enabled them to concentrate on the beauty of the poetic language and the expressivity of its melodic settings in a way that sounded—paradoxically—free, natural, and thoroughly convincing, no small feat. I came away wanting to hear more. Read the full review >
Power Couple: A Far Cry Meets Blue Heron
Kate Stringer, The Boston Musical Intelligencer | February 2, 2016
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.
…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….
…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. Read the full review >
Herons and Criers, Joining Forces
Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe | February 1, 2016
The Fauré Requiem was of course the familiar masterwork in this more obscure company, yet even so, this performance gave the choral favorite a fresh visage by employing smaller, almost chamber-scaled vocal forces; Fauré’s lighter orchestration of 1893; and a period French-inflected pronunciation of the Latin text. These qualities all no doubt contributed to a performance of rare grace, serenity, and style. The precision of Blue Heron’s choral blend was something to behold, and the singers were met artfully at every turn by the members of A Far Cry. Read the full review >
Blue Heron Weaves the Sacred and the Secular
Jeffrey Gantz, The Boston Globe | October 20, 2015
What was unusual about Blue Heron’s presentation was music director Scott Metcalfe’s decision to have [the “L’homme armé”] melody sung to its secular text rather than to the text of the Mass. Thus, in the Kyrie, Jason McStoots sang the words of “L’homme armé” against everybody else’s “Kyrie eleison.” That juxtaposition brought sacred and secular together in an audible way, but so did Blue Heron’s overall performance, which, as always with this choir, was rich and ardent and made heaven seem an everyday thing. In the final “Agnus Dei,” however, Steven Hrycelak’s bass boomed out the “L’homme armé” and the words — “Beware the armed man! — became ominous as the ever-unpredictable Ockeghem’s Mass slid from major modality to minor.
The rest of the evening provided context in the form of songs by Ockeghem and his contemporaries. Here, too, sacred and secular were hard to separate. Du Fay’s “Vostre bruit et vostre grant fame” could as easily be a love song to the Virgin Mary as to a lady; suggestions for the “armed man” have ranged from a Turk or a Crusader to St. Michael or Christ. Some composers even combined two texts into a single composition, as Philippe Basiron did with “L’homme armé” and “D’ung autre amer,” another song that could be sacred or secular. Blue Heron brought the same clarity and gusto to these works that it did to the Mass, making the one kind of music as blessed as the other. Read the full review >
Virgina Newes, The Boston Musical Intelligencer | Oct. 19, 2015
Blue Heron’s Ockeghem project comes with a clear sense of mission: to better acquaint us with a still too little-known composer, and to place his works, both sacred and secular, within the intellectual and artistic context of their time. Their carefully thought out performances—precise yet supple, rhythmically alive, and joyful—made for an intensely pleasurable listening experience. Read the full review >
Blue Heron ensemble brings context, intensity to Early Music Now program
The Blue Heron vocal ensemble makes a great case study in what is right with early music today.
Presented by Early Music Now, the 13-voice, Boston-based ensemble played to a packed house at St. Joseph Center Chapel on Saturday, delivering a program that combined simplicity and complexity with stylistic rigor and musical intensity, winning a well-deserved standing ovation.
Directed by Scott Metcalfe, the ensemble took impeccable scholarship and mixed it with musical discipline and vocal precision to create a beautifully blended, exquisitely balanced, artfully shaped performance.
Unlike the tepid, cautious deliveries of early music that many of us remember all too well, Blue Heron brought invigorating, full-voice sounds to this music. The performers sang with a robust energy and musical intensity, often filling the room with the powerful, ringing sound of their deftly woven musical lines.
This was a seriously finely tuned performance… Add to that the musical depth Blue Heron brought to the seldom-heard material and you have riveting early music. Read the full review >
Blue Heron Performs “Missa de plus en plus” at Corpus Christi Church
But the magnetic allure of the music lay — for me — in its surface beauty.
Of course, as with Bach, that surface is inseparable from the intricate architecture that supports it. Aided by the warm clarity of Corpus Christi’s acoustics and the wonderfully round and sleek sound of the Blue Heron singers, the music’s texture came alive with great malleability. Individual lines pirouetted apart and floated back together. The plainchant beginning of the Mass’s “Gloria” filled out and swelled, first gradually, then dramatically. Read the full review >
Springtime in Europe, from an inspired pairing
I can’t remember a program as appealing as the one local Renaissance choir Blue Heron and New York–based viol consort Parthenia presented Saturday at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational. “Chants de Printemps: Songs for Spring & Other Seasons From 16th-Century France & the Low Countries” looked innocent enough as a title, but the subject matter encompassed trilling nightingales, ducks diving delightedly, a disconsolate girl whose parents had sent her to a convent, a mysterious girl who spins whatever God gives her, a disappointed girl who can’t get her barley well ground by the miller, and the usual complement of forlorn lovers. It even ended with settings of Psalms from the Genevan Psalter. Read the full review >
Beyond Le Jeune’s Greatest Hits
Everyone knows Blue Heron as one of the best Early Music ensembles in the world, acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for having clearly gone beyond first-wave Early Music interpretation to a place where high-end scholarship works hand in hand with serious musical virtuosity and communicative expressivity. Blue Heron is also clearly a very intelligent group. Scott Metcalfe directs with incredible precision and textual insight. So what’s left for them to do? In the group’s program of 16thcentury chansons by Le Jeune, Pevernage, Sweelinck and others at a packed First Congregational Church in Cambridge on Saturday, it struck me that the intention was to develop the canon of generally known and recognized Early Music. In the pre-concert talk, expert anecdotes from Professor Peter Urquhart made it clear that Le Jeune isn’t currently held in such esteem as the program’s weighting towards his composition might suggest. Basically, nobody yet knows much Le Jeune (save for his Greatest Hits), and Scott Metcalfe wants to bring him to a wider and more appreciative audience. Read the full review >
Love Songs Made Divine
The singers of Blue Heron juxtaposed polyphonic settings for the Mass by the Renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem with sweetly tuneful love songs upon which they were based (mostly Ockeghem’s own) in “Divine Songs,” Saturday at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational. For those wishing to understand why 15th-century composers in particular might have favored such a seemingly incongruous co-mingling of sacred and secular, the excellent and highly readable program notes by Blue Heron’s Music Director Scott Metcalfe provided ample documentation, and in an engaging pre-concert talk, Professor Sean Gallagher of Boston University sketched the cultural and theological background of Ockeghem’s music for us. But it was the sheer beauty of the music in performances notable for their fine-tuned sensitivity to the nuances of interweaving melodic lines and overlapping cadences, in tones that were never pushed or forced, that captivated us, and could not help but convert newcomers to this repertory to the brilliant diversity of Ockeghem’s polyphony. Read the full review >
The Sound of Blue Heron — Pleasure Aplenty
By Saturday night, December 22, Incan predictions of doomsday were proven wrong, so Blue Heron were free to perform its program of Christmas in 15th-century France & Burgundy to a very appreciative crowd. Word has spread far and wide that Blue Heron, now in its 14th season, is simply superb: both of its Cambridge concerts were sold-out affairs.
Several merits distinguish Blue Heron’s concerts, the most salient being the always-gorgeous singing of this pre-eminent, Renaissance vocal choir. What’s more, music director Scott Metcalfe consistently writes program notes replete with interesting historical background about the music and the pre-concert guest lecturers are usually very good. This concert’s lecturer, Sean Gallagher, an expert on fifteenth-century polyphony, was unusually engaging. Read the full review >
The Dazzling Vocal Blend of Blue Heron
Blue Heron’s performance of music from the Peterhouse Partbooks is a perfect meeting of superb scholarship and superb performance. St. Cecilia Parish is a quintessential venue for England’s fifteenth-century repertoire: on Thursday evening, the polyphonic music of John Mason and Nicholas Ludford unfolded with astounding presence and resonance. Polyphonic music, known later as the prima prattica—all voices having equal weight—requires transparency to display the interweaving lines of the music’s texture. This Blue Heron supplied with buoyancy and sensitive musicianship. Scott Metcalfe conducted his 13 singers with few displays of flamboyance and extraneous movement but maintained excellent control of the tempos and flow of the music. Read the full review >
Thrilling, Soaring, Quasi-Religious Performance
I was told by our editor, “You must go hear Blue Heron.” Silly me, I hadn’t yet heard them — and there is no excuse for that. I agreed to review this concert in part to rectify my oversight, although I may be the only person who views writing a concert review as something akin to an act of contrition. (And I never was a Roman Catholic.) But last night’s standing-room-only concert at Boston College’s Gasson Hall proved to me just how enormous was my oversight in not having heard Blue Heron perform before. Now I can tell you, “Go. You must hear Blue Heron.” This was a thrilling, soaring, quasi-religious experience. You have three more opportunities to hear this program; stop reading now and get yourself to a venue. Read the full review >
Songs of Love, Religious or Otherwise
The sensuality of the motets matched the decadent language of the “Song of Songs.” The ensemble sang Guerrero’s “Tota pulchra es, Maria” (“You Are All Beautiful, Mary”) with passionate expression and dramatic attention to text, its immaculately blended voices swelling in gorgeous waves. Gombert’s harmonically striking setting of the same text reflected his dissonant aesthetic. Read the full review >
Love songs sound heavenly
When the thoughts of the young turn to love, it scarcely matters whether the setting is ancient Jerusalem, Renaissance Europe or modern-day California – the sighs and sobs of desire sound much the same everywhere.
So the music presented during Thursday night’s sumptuously beautiful concert by the vocal ensemble Blue Heron, an assemblage of love songs from 16th century Spain, had a familiar emotional ring to it. The longing for the beloved, the thrill of physical consummation, the pain of rejection or thwarted love – these don’t vary with the passage of the centuries or changes in musical style. Read the full review >
An Embarrassment of Vocal Riches — Blue Heron and The Tallis Scholars
Two extraordinary concerts took place in Cambridge, MA, last weekend, one by Blue Heron at First Church Congregational on Friday, the other by a perennial Boston favorite, The Tallis Scholars, in the cavernous St. Paul’s Church in Harvard Square. Read the full review >
Splendor of Hapsburg-Burgundian Court Music
The splendor of the Hapsburg-Burgundian courts in the early 16th century provided the context for a concert by Blue Heron Renaissance Choir, Scott Metcalfe, director, on Friday evening, March 30th, at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational. Under the umbrella title “Music for Three Sovereigns,” the program consisted in part of sacred motets from a collection printed in 1520 and drawn from the repertory of the court chapel in Vienna of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Through his marriage to Mary of Burgundy, Maximilian also became heir to Burgundy and the Low Countries, whose prosperous city churches had long nurtured the best singers and composers of high art polyphony. Maximilian’s daughter Marguerite established her own brilliant court with its own musical establishment at Malines, where she ruled first as regent for her young nephew Charles V and later as governor of the Low Countries. Marguerite had her own scriptorium for the copying of luxury manuscripts both for her own use and as gifts. One of these was sent to Henry VIII and his queen, Catherine of Aragon. This manuscript contains no less than five settings of the last words (delivered in Virgil’s Aeneid) by the third sovereign of the program, Dido Queen of Carthage. Read the full review >
Blue Heron shines in smaller ensemble and in full force
Boston has a well-earned reputation as an exceptional early-music town. Even so, last weekend was unusual for the abundance of choral talent on display. Friday saw a performance by Blue Heron, the city’s own outstanding early-music vocal group, while the Tallis Scholars – for many years the standard-bearers in this repertory – were due for a Saturday concert in the Boston Early Music Festival series. Read the full review >
Blue Heron’s Renaissance polyphonics, without polemics
Should J.S. Bach’s choral music have one singer to a part or many? Should a performance score be a conflation of sources or taken from a single manuscript? Must baroque music always be performed on period instruments and with attempts to match ancient styles?
Sometimes the polemics give way to gentle suggestions in the context of musicians and fans who all love this music. That was the sentiment of a concert Saturday night by Blue Heron, a Boston-area group specializing in Renaissance polyphony. Read the full review >
A very medieval Christmas
The overflow crowd at Blue Heron Choir’s Christmas concert last Friday was more evidence (if you needed any) that medieval polyphony—particularly in sacred-music mode—is suddenly “hot.” Stile Antico has been touring with Sting, after all, and Alex Ross recently sang Blue Heron’s praises in the New Yorker (interestingly, you could compare the two groups last weekend, when they were both warbling within a few hundred yards of each other in Harvard Square). Read the full review >
Blue Heron basks in medieval light
Blue Heron’s stellar “Christmas in Medieval England” program… There was a particular glow to this local choir’s sound…full-bodied, even lusty… Read the full review >
Blue Heron Flies With Grace
At 8:00 on the evening of Friday, 16 December, in the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, Blue Heron performed a program called “Christmas in Medieval England.” It was splendidly entertaining, containing such a variety of genres and styles that I am at a loss to know where to begin. The best I can say is to advise anyone interested to go to the second performance tonight, same place, same time, and enjoy it for themselves. Read the full review >
Choirs Plus Ultra: Sacred harmonies draw cheers
Blue Heron and Ensemble Plus Ultra—two out-of-the-box choirs from out of town—met in New York City last week to present a concert of 16th-century music so rousing that it was met by a standing ovation; the stunning stained glass at St. Ignatius of Antioch Church rattled to cheers associated more with Don Giovanni than sacred polyphony. Read the full review >
Blue Heron and Ensemble Plus Ultra: Stunning Polyphony
The ever more popular Renaissance choir Blue Heron was joined by UK-based Ensemble Plus Ultra for a stellar performance on Saturday, October 15th … There was a glorious match of sound between the two ensembles, and Browne’s constantly shifting textures were executed seamlessly, largely due to Metcalfe’s conducting. His sense of timing was refined and elegant. Never wallowing excessively in the sonorities, he allowed momentum to interpolate the melismatic gestures into the texture, rather than focusing on them as virtuosic moments of soloistic grandstanding. …
The Salve regina a 5 by Richard Pygott (c. 1485-1549) featured Blue Heron alone, but one was struck by the richness of sound even without the combined forces. There is always something in this choir to make you listen more deeply, to lean forward and witness the inner voices. Their contrapuntal nuance is at times astounding, and this performance was a perfect example. … The final line of the piece, “O dulcis Maria, salve,” was remarkable in its gradual increase of intensity from the exquisite reverence of “dulcis” to the blinding brilliance of “salve.”
… While the sense of serenity and the ethereal was never sacrificed, Blue Heron’s performance, along with Ensemble Plus Ultra, was artistically satisfying in its commitment to an earthly zeal for the repertoire. The early music movement can no longer rest on its highly controversial laurels of historically informed performance, or on producing ambient music for the new age movement. This repertoire is relevant, and can be made increasingly so by performances with assiduous attention to detail, ardent love for the music, and nuanced interpretations of texts once thought to be the ultimate poetry of sublimity. Blue Heron’s top-notch artistry, Scott Metcalfe’s program notes, and the pre-concert lectures as well as their commitment to education (see the “Performance Practice Corner” feature in the program), make this group a fantastic model for the fully-realized potential of early music performance in the 21st century. Read the full review >
An Unusual Combination: 16th Century English and Spanish Music Sung by “Blue Heron” and “Ensemble Plus Ultra”
Browne’s “O Maria salvatoris mater” for 8 vocal parts received a flowing reading with a big, rich sound from an ensemble drawn from both vocal groups. Pygott’s “Salve Regina” for 5 voices was performed by Blue Heron with great concentration over its 22-minute span. The relatively brief Salve Regina text familiar from so many motet settings is here extended into a lengthy meditative song in multiple parts, and the finely-tuned choir managed to maintain the dramatic tension throughout the long work. … I had attended this concert at the invitation of the president of the board of Blue Heron, who had come across my earlier blog postings about early music concerts I had attended and wanted me to hear his group. I’m glad he asked, because I found it a most rewarding experience. … Both groups were worth hearing, and both are definitely worth hearing again….! Read the full review >
Two ensembles double the artistry in concert
Instead of opening its 13th season on its own, the adventurous early-music chorus Blue Heron played host to a newcomer. It was joined by Ensemble Plus Ultra, a British vocal group making its US debut. … Ensemble Plus Ultra doesn’t marshal the same kind of expressive daring that has won Blue Heron its reputation. But the group’s artistry is extraordinary in its own way: the singing was a model of precision and pure, willowy beauty… As for Blue Heron, it devoted its part of the concert to a single piece, “Salve regina,” a work of epic breadth by British composer Richard Pygott. One could hear the group’s familiar virtues: long, liquid phrasing, creative use of dynamics, and careful attention to the text.… Read the full review >
Elegant Polyphony from Blue Heron
The unison chant was all at once delicate and expressive, with nuances seldom heard in performances by other early music ensembles.
There is a sense of pure joy that rises out of the music-making and wraps itself around the audience.
…intensely soulful. …The ensemble brought out every possible expressive phrase of the text… Blue Heron performed…with breathtaking passion… Read the full review >