Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Christmas vigil with Blue Heron

Leonardo's Gabriel from the Annunciation in the Uffizi.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, conductor Scott Metcalfe had a busy holiday season - in one weekend he led both the Handel and Haydn Society and his own Blue Heron choir in Christmas concerts that not only were noteworthy for remarkable musical quality but were designed with a striking sense of spiritual ceremony.

The Blue Heron performances, set in Cambridge's beautifully gilded First Congregational Church, were styled with a particularly explicit religious theatricality (which was unavailable to H&H in Jordan Hall). Metcalfe's conceit was to conjure a Christmas vigil, while working his way through songs devoted to Advent and the Annunciation (celebrated in March, nine months prior to Christmas, for obvious reasons; above, the young Leonardo's painting of the angel Gabriel), and finally from sacred music composed for Vespers on Christmas Eve and Mass on the holiday itself.  

Thus the first half of the concert opened and closed in candlelight; and subtle shifts in lighting conveyed the break of dawn on Christmas Day. Metcalfe also moved his singers with the skill of a stage manager around the church sanctuary, into formations that often enhanced the acoustics of their performances.  If all this sounds a bit hokey - well, perhaps to a cynical observer, it came off that way; and there are certainly valid arguments to be made about the point at which artistic performance should end, and true religious observance begin.  But you know, the priesthood knew what it was doing when it designed the Christmas God Show (and so, of course, did Jehovah), so inevitably most of Metcalfe's gambits came off, and the concert seemed imbued with a quiet sense of holiness that enriched the musical experience (and which it's hard to conjure through vocal means alone).

The men of Blue Heron.

The concert was dubbed "Christmas in Medieval England," and Metcalfe's vigil was programmed as if it might have occurred sometime in the 1440's (when yes, the Italian Renaissance was gaining momentum - but the medieval period in England is generally considered to extend all the way to the Battle of Bosworth Field).

The performance began evocatively, with the men of the chorus, led by bass David McFerrin, intoning the familiar Veni, Veni, Emanuel from the candlelit altar; this served as preamble to a suite of hymns and carols devoted to the mystery of the Annunciation (and often sung to the sweet, spare accompaniment of a medieval harp - played by Metcalfe himself). Here mezzo Daniela Tošić distinguished herself with a richly colored rendition of Angelus ad virginem (a song so popular in its day it's actually mentioned in The Canterbury Tales). Another highlight was John Dunstaple's Gaude virgo salutata/Gaude virgo singularis - an "isorhythmic motet" which elegantly braided tenor and countertenor parts, and which soared with the contributions of countertenors Martin Near and (especially) Gerrod Pagenkopf. The Marian sequence reached its climax with a committed reading of Leonel Power's Gloria, which led into a gently lyrical take on Ther is no rose of swych vertu, which bloomed with a lovely duet between Tošić and Pagenkopf.

The second half of the performance perhaps never hit quite the same heights; indeed, like many a Christmas Day, it felt like something of an anticlimax. Still, the singing was always confident and pitch-perfect (perhaps it should be; Blue Heron has sung much of this repertoire before), virtues which underpinned a rousing Nowel: Owt of your slepe aryse, and a haunting reading of Pycard's Gloria.  And a beautifully subtle balance was everywhere in evidence, particularly in a transporting Agnus dei. The concert closed with a hearty carol, Nowel syng we bothe al and som, and an even more rollicking encore (Nova, nova) which sent the crowd into the winter night in something close to the perfect holiday mood.

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