Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A very medieval Christmas

Blue Heron in flight.  Photo by Liz Linder.

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).

It's easy to understand, I think, why this ancient, church-bound style has found a new millennial audience.  For once polyphony has been stripped of its liturgical function, and transformed into concert music, it feels a bit like sung yoga: its color palette is comfortingly limited, and it's tonally simple (though its suspensions can be dissonant, this is more a function of naïveté than conscious design).  What's more, its rhythms are so meditative that its intertwined vocal lines seem to slip the reins of time itself, and expand like a sort of cloud into musical space.  To be honest, this is not music for the goal-oriented; the appeal of a great performance of polyphony lies in its precision, purity, and the clarity of its facets - so perhaps it's best not to think of it as sung yoga, I suppose, but rather as a form of vocal crystal.

The downside of this formula, of course, is that the style can feel repetitive, and when it gets fuzzy or loses its pulse, polyphony transmutes in a moment from diamond to rhinestone.  Blue Heron has been specializing in this stuff for years, however, so last weekend's concert of English late-medieval music generally steered clear of the cubic zirconia.  Some of the full-chorus pieces, alas, did slowly dissolve into an aural fog (I've heard the heavy reverb of the venue, First Congregational Church in Cambridge, work this reverse magic before).  But even a few of these - like the short Sanctus, Nowel syng we bothe al and som, and Nova, Nova at the end of the program - were exquisitely clean and vibrant as shaped by the capable, careful hands of director Scott Metcalfe.

Several of the small ensembles were meanwhile quite wonderful.  The heavenly melody of Hayl Mary, ful of grace remained palpable throughout its performance, and tenor Jason McStoots - one of the group's strongest voices, and a favorite of mine from other concerts - led a rousing all-male rendition of Leonel Power's Gloria.  The trios were often even better.  Pamela Dellal, Daniela Tošić, and Michael Barrett made something exquisite of Selden's Ecce, quod natura, while Tošić and Dellal shone again, with Gerrod Pagenkopf, in Nowel: Owt of your slepe aryse (also Selden).  Perhaps most bewitching was the gorgeous Ther is no rose of swych vertu, which featured Tošić, Barrett, and Paul Guttry, accompanied by Metcalfe on troubadour harp.

Blue Heron knows its way around a little stagecraft as well, I'm happy to report.  The vaults of First Congregational often went dark, to allow singing by candlelight, which added greatly to the haunting atmosphere of such familiar carols as Veni, veni, Emmanuel! And in general Metcalfe deployed his forces across the available space to striking effect. The printed program was also a pleasure, with lyrics in an intriguing mix of Middle English and Latin. As I'll discuss in tomorrow's review, Stile Antico could learn a trick or two from the home team, as they seem to know in their bones how this stuff should be done; indeed, Blue Heron in full flight is a wonder to behold.

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