During the Advent season in the Church calendar, expectation for the long-awaited Messiah comes in texts and music often quietly and intensely compelling; one expects hymns such as “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light” and “Come Thou Long-expected Jesus” in a conventional worship service. But when Scott Metcalfe, the Artistic Director of Blue Heron is involved, the results are anything but conventional.
“Christmas in Renaissance Spain & New Spain,” the ensemble’s holiday celebration, peered deeply into the bottomless well of the past, delivering a semi-secular, colorful mixed salad of 16th-century Advent hymns, plainchant, villancicos, and epiphanies to a grateful full house at First Church Cambridge on Saturday afternoon. (Also Friday night and Saturday night)
One of Blue Heron’s apparent models, the Tallis Scholars, also gratified a full house in Cambridge recently [HERE], and of course one notes the similarities in sharply focused scholarly and performing precisionism of both small choirs. In a typical concert both ensembles seamlessly morph their groupings among various combinations of voices. And both groups seem to toss in something unexpected. The Tallis Scholars leapt from the Renaissance to the here and now with a strikingly new-is-old-again motet by Arvo Pärt, and the graceful Herons interrupted our reveries with a creaky melodramatic number.
But perhaps the most the striking difference between the two groups results from the how Scott Metcalfe trusts his singers. Tallis’s Artistic Director and founder Peter Phillips conducts his forces whereas Metcalfe participates as a singer, and-or violinist when not basking avuncularly from the wings.
Thus, Megan Chartrand, Carley DeFranco (substituting for the indisposed Sophie Michaux), and Martin Near, cantus; Michael Barrett, Jonas Budris, Corey Dalton Hart & Jason McStoots, tenor; Paul Guttry & David McFerrin, bassus; could interact without top-down management (at least in the performances). And this also permitted the singers theatrical and gestural engagements that one would expect from individual lieder singers, while at the same time producing shapely collective phrases and accuracy of ornament.
Metcalfe notes of the first half:
Come, Lord, and do not delay,” implores the motet by Francisco Guerrero, its first words, “Veni domine et noli tardare,” intoned over and over again by a single upper voice to a short melody at two different pitch levels; the other four sing the rest of the text, quoting the same melody when they sing those words.
Next we hear the familiar Advent hymn Conditor alme siderum, celebrating the arrival of Christ and the imminent return of light to a world darkened by evening, while looking ahead to his passion and resurrection. Gabriel appears to the virgin, blessing her and the fruit of her womb, while in Ave Maria gratia plena his salutation to Mary is sung in alternation by two four-voice choirs…. Gaspar Fernandes’s rollicking villancico ¡A de abajo! announces the news to those “down there,” referring again to the child’s salvific mission to serve as “a ransom of incalculable worth.” Cristóbal de Morales’s Missa Queramus cum pastoribus, a so-called parody mass whose musical materials are derived from the motet of the same name (“Let us seek with the shepherds the Word incarnate”) by Jean Mouton. To the four voices of Mouton’s motet Morales adds a fifth, a second bass; the rich low texture may be meant to emphasize the humble humanity of the Savior’s birth, or that of his pastoral worshippers. The Osannas dance forth in triple time.
The rustic villancico “ensalada” that dominated the second half, La Bomba by Mateo Flecha the Elder, mixed up languages, genres, meters, and messages most memorably. We embed Blue Heron’s performance from December 2019.
Pump! pump and bail water!
Heave the cargo into the sea
or we’re going to sink
with no hope of salvation.
Can’t you see we’re doomed?
But woe is me, what will I do?
I can’t swim, I’m going to die!
Virgin Mother, I promise
to recite your hours without fail.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God:
it is meet and right
to give thanks for the great bounty
we have received this day.
Let us all sing joyfully
in his service today.|
Come, come, let’s begin!
You start, Gil Pizarra,
play your guitar
and the rest of us will help you.
– Just wait until it’s tuned.
Tune it well, you whoreson!
– Oh, how out of tune it is!
Get on with it, damn you!
We promised a lot
during the fierce storm,
and later we’ll burn
an infinite number of candles,
de la china gala,
la gala chinela.
God be with you, good sirs! To sail!
For while there are perils at sea,
there are perils also on land
and perils among false brethren.
To this salad Metcalfe added a sweet and sour dressing in a prancing turn as narrator, hysterically hectoring and gesturing in the manner of a 19th-century melodrama victim. He raised his hands in prayer and choreographed some similar handwringing from the chorus, also to bathetic effect. We could have simply read our programs and listened to the singers and players without this dubiously judged and seemingly anachronistic intrusion. Camerata’s Joel Cohen might have pulled it off more piratically. [If you want to see and hear a memorized and choreographed performance from what appears like double Kingston Trio (but is really the King’s Singers), click HERE.]
Then it began to feel a lot like Christmas in the darkened, candlelit sanctuary. The singers followed the Star as the Kings and Magi Blessed the Babe polyphonically with wonderful jingle-jangle from Ryaan Ahmed, guitar; Jonathan Hess, percussion; Bob Wiemken, dulcian & recorder. And we smiled again remembering how Metcalfe and Ahmed had tuned detuned and retuned in La Bomba
Gaspar Fernandes’s Tañe Gil tu tamborino closed the show with festive joy. Right… tune that fuming, tambourine you whoreson!
Play your drum, Gil,
and let the flute and tambourine sound,
let the bagpipe stutter
and the fiddle not lose its tune.
For the divine heavens
invite us to a feast …
In a state of pleasant satiety after 90+ minutes of musicmaking, the crowd demanded more than the formally programmed 15 or so works in eight categories. The tutti and boffo encore, the early Castilian carol “Veinticinco de diciembre…” also known as “On December five and twenty fum, fum, fum,” implanted an irrepressible earworm.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer