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Reviews

2011
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Thomas Garvey, The Hub Review | December 21, 2011

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).

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Jeffrey Gantz, Boston Globe | December 19, 2011

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...

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Tamar Hestrin Grader, Boston Musical Intelligencer | December 17, 2011

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.

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Judy Myers, CityArts | October 27, 2011

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.

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Rebecca Marchand, Boston Musical Intelligencer | October 16, 2011

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 at First Church Congregational in Cambridge. The program, entitled "A 16th-Century Meeting of England and Spain," was a musical tribute to a century that was politically defined by various partnerships and conflicts between the two countries. Blue Heron's portion of the program focused on repertoire from the Eton Choirbook and Peterhouse books, two important sources of English sacred music from the early 16th century. Ensemble Plus Ultra took over most of the second half of the concert, featuring six works by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) and ending with a stunning motet by Francisco Guerrero (1528-99), Duo seraphim a 12.

Blue Heron and Ensemble Plus Ultra joined forces for the opening work, O Maria salvatoris, a votive antiphon by English composer John Browne (active around 1500). Conducted by Blue Heron's director, Scott Metcalfe, the work instantly transformed the space with a soaring soprano invocation of the Virgin Mary. 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. Highlights of the work included some excellent countertenor moments in the fourth verse, which featured only male voices, and the particularly resonant texture of the fifth verse, which pitted Paul Guttry's solid bass voice against the clear bell-like sonorities of the sopranos. The final verse, beginning with the text "Theologia disputans" in a reduced texture, demonstrated how involved this polyphony actually is, no doubt with a conscious reference to "theological dispute" and its various complexities. In keeping with the text painting, the final word of the antiphon, "melodia," was a blossoming of polyphony that showcased the true exquisiteness of both these ensembles.

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. Pygott's work is full of harmonic surprises and shifting textures, with the verse tropes reduced to three voice parts. In the first section of the work, the tenors leaned overly into some of the high notes, but the men-only trio on the second verse trope, "Virgo Clemens, virgo pia…," was one of the most stunning moments of the evening. Here the melodic lines were exposed gently but with extreme precision and articulation. 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."

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One gratifying experience of the night actually came from the audience. How wonderful it was to hear people talking during intermission about the music; or Blue Heron; or the January 2011 review by Alex Ross in the New Yorker of Blue Heron's recording of sacred music by English composers Hugh Aston, Robert Jones and John Mason. In his review, Ross commented on Blue Heron's "quiver of passion" and indeed, it is this passion that sets them apart from many other early music ensembles. 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.

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Arthur S. Leonard, Leonard Link | October 16, 2011

An Unusual Combination: 16th Century English and Spanish Music Sung by "Blue Heron" and "Ensemble Plus Ultra"

This afternoon I attended a most unusual concert at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Two early music vocal groups, one based in Boston, the other English, came together to present a program of 16th century music from England and Spain. Blue Heron, the Boston-based group started in 1999 by its music director, Scott Metcalfe, has a wide-ranging repertory focused on renaissance polyphony, somewhat in the style of the Tallis Scholars. Ensemble Plus Ultra, the English group founded by its music director, Michael Noone, focuses primarily on music from the Spanish renaissance.

The program was evenly divided between the two groups and their music directors with an interesting symmetry, in that the program opened and concluded with works calling upon the joint resources of the two ensembles. Scott Metcalfe conducted the first half, which consisted of two relatively lengthy works by relatively unknown early 16th century English composers, John Browne and Richard Pygott. 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.

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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. Blue Heron will be back in New York City for a program of 16th century Spanish lovesongs on June 10, and they have two interesting programs that they will be performing in Cambridge, Mass., in December and March. (Those interested should check their website, blueheronchoir.org, for information about concerts and their recordings.) Ensemble Plus Ultra is on an American tour, coinciding with the release by DG Arkiv of their 10-disc recording of sacred music by Victoria, focused on pieces he published while living and working in Spain after his long sojourn as student and musician in Rome. Both groups were worth hearing, and both are definitely worth hearing again....!

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Rebecca Marchand, Boston Musical Intelligencer | March 21, 2011

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. Each had a set to itself, and the two came together onstage to open and close a concert that spanned one century (the 16th) and two countries (England and Spain). Hearing them side by side revealed fascinating contrasts. Ensemble Plus Ultra, directed by Michael Noone, is smaller than Blue Heron - eight singers to the latter's 13. And Ensemble Plus Ultra assigns one singer to each vocal part, where Blue Heron will sometimes have more than one per vocal line.

This gives the British group a smaller, more focused sound than Blue Heron's. 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.

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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.…

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Rebecca Marchand, Boston Musical Intelligencer | March 21, 2011

...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...

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Alex Ross, The New Yorker | January 10, 2011

Many voices: Blue Heron brings a hint of the Baroque to Renaissance polyphony

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Fortunately, fresh ideas about Renaissance performance are proliferating...

Among recent CDs in the polyphonic field, a recording by the Boston ensemble Blue Heron stands out, and not only because of the group's pleasingly quirky name. The director of Blue Heron is Scott Metcalfe... His aim is to bring expressive intensity, even a hint of Baroque flair, to the earlier repertory...

The new Blue Heron disk ... gathers five-part religious pieces by English composers of the early Tudor period: Robert Jones, John Mason, and, most significant, Hugh Aston... Only ten pieces by Aston survive, but they reveal a composer with a knack for generating brilliant climaxes from simple material...

Of course, my sense of Aston's voice owes much to Blue Heron's imaginative realization of his scores. Through an array of interpretive choices—fine gradations of dynamics; pungent diction; telling contrasts of ethereal and earthly timbres; tempos that are more lusty than languid; a way of propelling a phrase toward a goal—the music takes on narrative momentum, its moods dovetailing with the theme of the text. Listen to the brazen, almost raucous tone of the sopranos as they arrive, in "Ave Maria dive matris Anne," at the self-reflexive phrase "psallentes et omnes hoc Ave Maria"—"and all singing this Hail Mary." Or to the joyous thrust of the basses in the Amen coda of Aston’s "Gaude virgo mater Christi," as they repeat a phrase in which one interval keeps widening, from a third to a fourth and, finally, to a fifth...

The seemingly serene music of Renaissance church ritual did not stem from yoga-like spells of meditation. Instead, as Andrew Kirkwood observes, it communicated a desperate plea for mercy—in particular, "the desire to shorten the time in purgatory that, short of sainthood and immediate passage to paradise, would follow earthly life." ... It is good to feel a hint of turbulence, of mortal fear, in performances such as Blue Heron's...; with that quiver of passion, the music inspires even greater awe.

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