Blue Heron Sings Ockeghem in Cambridge

Blue Heron. Photo: Kathy Wittman

Blue Heron Sings Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum

First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts

By Christian Carey

Sequenza21.com

March 9, 2019

CAMBRIDGE – Blue Heron’s Ockeghem@600 project has steadily worked its way through much of the composer’s repertoire. On March 9th at First Church, one of the most special evenings of this series was performed: Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum. The mass is constructed almost entirely out of a set of double canons, presenting imitative counterpoint throughout and at every scalar interval (a feat only matched by Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but Bach’s include single, not double, canons). The jaw-dropping intricacies of this work’s construction, and the comparative irregularity of its presentation on concert programs, made me more than happy to make the trip from New Jersey to Boston to experience it live.

Johannes Ockeghem, who died in 1497, was during his lifetime highly esteemed as both a composer and singer (some say the low bass lines one sees in his music would likely have been performed by Ockeghem himself). A number of composers and theorists referenced his music, employing it in paraphrase and parody works and holding it up as a paragon of craftsmanship. One of Josquin’s most affecting pieces is Nymphes des bois, a Déploration on the death of Ockeghem. So why isn’t he a household name today among choral enthusiasts? The challenges posed by pieces like Missa Prolationum keep them beyond the reach of any but the most skillful and dedicated ensembles. This is where Blue Heron’s Ockeghem@600 project comes in, raising both awareness for the composer and demonstrating that, while formidable, his is eminently singable music.  

Scott Metcalfe, Blue Heron’s director, carefully curated the program both to elucidate and to entertain. The concert opened with a brief canonic work by Jean Mouton, Ave Maria gemma virginum, which served as a talking point for a brief but animated lecture by Metcalfe. The singers of Blue Heron helped him to illustrate several musical examples that explicated the process of canon and how it was used by Ockeghem. Further demonstration of canonic procedure was provided by Prenez sur moi, one of Ockeghem’s most famous songs.

The program continued by interspersing some of Ockeghem’s songs with movements of the mass. Given the compositional rigor of Missa Prolationum, the inclusion of other music smartly broke it up into more manageable chunks for listeners. It also served to demonstrate the composer’s versatility; the chansons may not include double canons like the mass but are equally inventive in their own respective ways.

Throughout, Blue Heron sang with impressive tone, flawless intonation, and incisive rhythmic clarity. Indeed, the latter characteristic was particularly efficacious. One of the chief rewards of their rendition of the mass was being able to hear, clearly delineated, a veritable labyrinth of interlocking rhythms. As is their practice, Blue Heron shifts around the members of the ensemble (numbering nine singers plus Metcalfe directing and playing harp) from number to number. The upper part features both male and female voices and the rest of the singers, when singing solo, are heterogenous in tone color as well. However, when they join voices, the group adopts a resonant and supple blend.

The performance was inspiring, and the onstage remarks were spot-on in terms of content, level of detail, and duration. In addition to memories of the fine music-making, audience members left with another keepsake: a lovingly curated and detailed program book that was remarkably in-depth for such a document. It was yet another indication of the level of commitment that Metcalfe has brought to the Ockeghem@600 project. Blue Heron’s forthcoming recording of Ockeghem’s complete songs is not to be missed.

-Christian Carey

Urban Playground Premieres Florence Price

On Wednesday May 8th, Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra presents the New York premiere of Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2, music by Harry T. Burleigh,  and a rarely heard oratorio, And They Lynched Him on a Tree, by William Grant Still. The program, titled From Song Came Symphony. fits the ensemble’s mandate to prioritize the performance of composers who are women and people of color. It focuses on the legacy of Burleigh. I recently caught up with UPCO’s conductor Thomas Cunningham, who told me more about the concert.

Cunningham says, ”I found programmatic inspiration in Jay-Z lyrics: Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.”

“Burleigh wrote art songs so that the following generation – William Grant Still, William Dawson, and Florence Price – could write symphonies and concert works. Burleigh’s incorporation of African American music into Western art music, and his advocacy for this new American music genre through his work at Ricordi, had a vast influence on remarkable composers of color in America.”

Florence Price’s work has recently been receiving significant attention. Cunningham feels that Violin Concerto No. 2 will be a highlight of the concert. “Price’s second violin concerto is wonderfully idiosyncratic. The concerto is in so many places defined by its subtle and yet robust brass writing, atypical especially for a concerto for string instrument. All the while, this work demonstrates a novel voice, both aware and in touch with various traditions, but carving out singular nuance and identity.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Ph.D. candidate Kori Hill will deliver a pre-concert lecture at the event. Of Price’s work, she says, “This concerto, completed just one year before Price’s untimely death in 1953, is a fascinating example of her applications of African American vernacular and Western classical principles. It is an important component to understanding and fully appreciating her contributions to American classical music. We hope Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 becomes a staple of the violin repertory in the years to come.”

In addition to the aforementioned works, the program also includes a movement from Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony. Cunningham says that the included excerpt is connected to multiple pieces on the program. “Incorporating the Largo from Dvorak 9 serves a dual purpose: first, to demonstrate the tangible connection between the spirituals sung by Burleigh to Dvorak, and second, to mirror the premiere of Still’s And They Lynched Him on a Tree, which also included the movement.”


This is the fifth year that UPCO has been active. Their advocacy is laudable, and the group has musicianship to match its ambition. Cunningham and company are persuasive performers of both standard-era repertoire and more recent music. May 8th’s concert should be a memorable one.

Event Info

Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra and Harry T. Burleigh Society present

From Song Came Symphony

Wednesday May 8th at 7:30 PM

Langston Hughes Auditorium

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

515 Malcolm X Blvd.

New York, New York 10037

Tickets

Caroline Shaw – Orange (CD Review)

Caroline Shaw – Orange

Attaca Quartet

Nonesuch/New Amsterdam CD

Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2013, Caroline Shaw has been a busy musician in the years following, performing as a vocalist with Roomful of Teeth (which recorded her prizewinning work Partita), violinist with ACME, and recording with Kanye West (yes, that Kanye West!). Shaw’s versatility and abundant creativity has kept her in demand for new commissions. Despite all this, Orange is the first portrait CD of her music. It is the first recording in a new partnership between Nonesuch and New Amsterdam Records. Given her own string instrument background, it seems especially appropriate that the CD contains chamber works performed by the estimable Attacca Quartet.  

Shaw frequently evokes the work of earlier composers in her own music, with snippets reminiscent of Beethoven and Bach in Punctum, Dowland’s consort music in Entr’acte, and Purcell in Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a. But this channeling of the past never feels like pastiche or ironic critique. The composer’s juxtapositions instead seem celebratory in character. The adroit deployment of a plethora of styles, from earlier models to the postminimalism, totalism, and postmodern aesthetics of more recent music accumulate into a singular voice; one buoyed by keen knowledge of the repertoire and flawless technique in writing for strings.

The latter quality is amply displayed in Valencia, in which pizzicato, sliding fiddle tunes, and high-lying arpeggios combine to create a fascinating, multifaceted texture. Entr’acte uses a lament motive as its ostinato, building from a simple descending chord progression to rich verticals and, later, plucked passages redolent in supple harmonies. Punctum builds rich chords to contrast repeated notes and undulating repetitions.

Plan and Elevation is a multi-movement work that celebrates gardens, “the herbaceous border” that outlines them, trees, and the fruit that they bear. These pastoral images inspire some of the most beautiful and expansive music on the CD. Once again, a descending minor key ground is a significant part of the piece’s organization, appearing in multiple movements.

The album’s closer, Limestone and Felt, is a one-movement miniature for viola and cello, combining pizzicato, percussive thumps on the bodies of the instruments, and several canons. It serves as an excellent encapsulation of the simultaneous joy and rigor that embodies so much of Caroline Shaw’s music.

  • Christian Carey

Matthew Shipp Trio – “Signature” (CD Review)

Matthew Shipp Trio, ‘Signature’ (ESP, 2019)

Matthew Shipp Trio

Signature

ESP (ESPDISK 5029CD)

Pianist Matthew Shipp has recorded prolifically, but Signature is the first outing of his current piano trio. Joined by bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, Shipp thrives in this configuration, one of the most celebrated and venerable in jazz history. Indeed, taking the piano trio to new places seems tailor-made to his adventurous style and superlative musicianship.  

All of the pieces here are improvised first takes. The title track hews the closest to a more traditional approach, with post-bop chord voicings and engaging colloquy between the three performers. Pleasing twists and turns in the sequencing make for welcome surprises. The collaborators take solo turns that intersperse group ventures. Bisio’s “Deep to Deep” serves as an arco droning intro to “Flying Saucer,” in which the piano and bass lines are both nimbly played yet forcefully delineated while the drums provide a propulsive underpinning; a thunderous, virtuosic excursion. Baker presents a New Orleans inflected solo called “Snap.” As if to belie its lineage, the drum solo is followed by the group in a contemporary mindset on “The Way,” which begins suavely only to build to somber cadence points that sound like dissonant chorales. A return to delicacy allows room for Bisio to take an arcing solo, only to have it washed away by a stentorian oscillating pattern from Shipp. This encourages a convergence on an ostinato which builds the piece to a boisterous climax, with fleet soloing matched beat-for-beat by rollicking rhythms.

“Stage Ten” features Shipp performing inside the piano against a swinging bass line from Bisio and drumming by Taylor Baker filled with fills. It is an arresting melange of modernity, both of the classical and jazz varieties, like Henry Cowell meeting Thelonious Monk. “Speech of Form” finds Shipp playing solo in a vein of chromatic, modally inflected jazz that he has mined before and returns to here with good results. “Zo #2” is an uptempo number that owes debts both to Bud Powell and Cecil Taylor. Shipp’s elegant pirouettes and unison octave lines are complemented by skittering drums and articulate bass.

“New Z,” another solo, gives Taylor Baker an opportunity to use world music percussion alongside shimmering cymbals. The CD concludes with “This Matrix,” the most extended cut on the date, clocking in at more than sixteen minutes. Driving playing, with quick angular melodies punctuated by booming clusters, “This Matrix” is an excellent example of the trio at its best: ardent, musically sophisticated, and capable of turning on a dime. The piece builds to a tremendously dexterous double time section. It is  followed by a languorous solo from Bisio that starts a long denouement, gradually reintroducing the entire trio in a coda of poignant delicacy.

Signature is very much an album of 2019, in which jazz seems more capable than ever of acting in dialogue with its long tradition while simultaneously forging promising pathways forward. Shipp has a large discography, but each successive release captures the moment in which it lives, epitomizing the essence of improvised music. Recommended.

  • Christian Carey (christianbcarey.com)

Upcoming Performances

McMurtery and Mack.

Tomorrow night, John McMurtery and Ashlee Mack perform my Bagatelles for alto flute and piano at Western Illinois University. They will also perform them on March 30th at University of Minnesota.

On April 5th, soprano Sara Noble will be singing a chanson of mine on an Opera on Tap program in Brooklyn. The Byrne:Kozar duo will perform A Lady, my microtonal Amy Lowell setting for soprano and trumpet, at DiMenna Center on April 27th.

March

26 – Three Bagatelles, John McMurtery, alto flute; Ashlee Mack, piano; Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois; 7:30 PM.

30 – Three Bagatelles, John McMurtery, alto flute; Ashlee Mack, piano; University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota; 7:30 PM.


April

5 – Je suis aimé de la plus belle, Sara Noble, soprano, Opera on Tap, Barbès, Brooklyn, New York; 8 PM.

27 – A Lady, Byrne:Kozar Duo, Permutations at DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York, New York; 7:30 PM.


Anna Webber: Clockwise (CD Review)

Anna Webber

Clockwise

Pi Recordings (2019)

Saxophonist/flutist/composer Anna Webber, a thirty-five-year-old who has already won a Guggenheim Fellowship and numerous other plaudits, makes her Pi Recordings debut with Clockwise.Joined by an estimable group of avant-jazz musicians – pianist Matt Mitchell, Jeremy Viner playing tenor saxophone and clarinet, trombonist Jacob Garchik, cellist Christopher Hoffman, bassist Chris Tordini, and percussionist Ches Smith-Webber plays tenor saxophone and flute on the CD. Her compositions are mostly extrapolations of pieces for percussion by twentieth century classical composers Morton Feldman(King of Denmark)Iannis Xenakis (Persephassa), Edgard Varése (Ionisation), Karlheinz Stockhausen (Zyklus), Milton Babbitt (Homily), and John Cage (Third Construction). Employing percussion music to organize musical structures yields fascinating and fertile hybridized compositions. 

Array, based on Babbitt’s Homily, a solo piece for snare drum, uses the score’s serialized dynamics and attack points to craft a welter of overlapping arpeggiations inhabited by the entire group. King of Denmark is visited in three different incarnations on Clockwise, the first lifting off with a bracing hail of noise-inspired multiphonics before moving into an undulating groove that positions the rhythm section front and center. The second features an introduction in which Smith plays glissandos on timpani alongside chiming interjections. This is succeeded by a sultry main section, pitting walking lines from Tordini against microtonal winds. King of Denmark III is the briefest trope on Feldman, juxtaposing a roiling arco solo from Tordini against saxophones overblown. 

The title track takes the modularity of Stockhausen’s original as a cue for its own set of disparate, time-linked sections. Cage’s Third Constructionis channeled on Hologram Best, which features angular saxophone and brass lines in ebulliently spinning motion. Idiom II is the sole track on the disc to be composed with Webber’s own material. Near unison saxes, just slightly out of sync, create a loping tune that is punctuated by thrumming percussion and bass notes. Gradually, the rhythm section exerts a more intrusive presence that rivals the saxophone ostinato. Ultimately, the head is banished in favor of a saxophone-piano duet, in which Mitchell plays from an attractive palette of complex harmonies. Inexorably, the saxophones push back. Now no longer in near-unison, deployed in counterpoint, they take a break of their own that is only gradually infiltrated by the rhythm section. The final section of the piece features ostinatos again, this time with blocks of reeds, harmonizing the original tune, taking the front line in the proceedings while the rhythm sections positively roars its propulsive support. A brief reappearance of the head ensues, and then the door slams shut on the most compelling music of the recording. 

Varése and Xenakis inspire the works Kore I and Kore II. The latter opens the disc with undulating pizzicato strings that are eventually joined successively by flute, piano, and the rest of the ensemble in an off-kilter, post-tonal dance. Kore I closes the recording with another pileup of material, starting from pianissimo feints from the rhythm section and eventually building to a portentous moto perpetuo in which solos from Tordini, Webber, and Garchik are finally subsumed into a furious tutti coda. 

Whether Webber is exploring avant-garde classical masters or paving her own pathways, she proves to be a compelling creator. Her collaborators, to a person, are stellar. Clockwise is heartily recommended. 

Blue Heron in New York (Concert Review)

Blue Heron. Photo: Liz Linder

Blue Heron: The Lost Music of Canterbury

Music Before 1800

Corpus Christi Church

February 10, 2019

Sequenza 21 

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – On February 10th, the Boston-based early music ensemble Blue Heron made one of its regular appearances at the Music Before 1800 series at Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights. Directed by Scott Metcalfe, an ensemble of a dozen vocalists performed five selections, all votive antiphons, from the Peterhouse Partbooks. 

Copied by John Bull during the reign of Henry VIII, the partbooks now reside at Peterhouse College of Cambridge University. The tenor book is missing, as are large sections of the treble book, but musicologist Nick Sandon has spent his career reconstructing pieces from the collection. Apart from a few performances and recordings made by British and Canadian ensembles, Blue Heron have been the principal advocates for this rediscovered cache of polyphonic music written for the Catholic Church. Bull compiled the music just a few years prior to the establishment of the Church of England, which brought with it entirely different liturgical practices that rendered the music obsolete. Many partbooks were destroyed during the ascendency, successively, of Anglicanism and Puritanism. This makes Sandon’s contribution all the more noteworthy, in that it restores enough music to significantly add to the choral repertoire available from the pre-Reformation period.   

Blue Heron recently released The Lost Music of Canterbury,a five-CD boxed set of music from the Peterhouse Partbooks with selections by a range of composers, from the well-known Nicholas Ludford to the entirely obscure Hugh Sturmy. The quality of both the music and recorded performances is extraordinarily high. Blue Heron have a beautiful sound custom crafted for this repertoire and display impeccable musicianship. Sadly, none of the antiphons presented on the Corpus Christi concert have yet been recorded by Blue Heron. Indeed, there is a massive amount of music left in the Peterhouse collection yet to be documented. While the group has moved on to other projects – they are currently at work on recordings of the complete songs of Ockeghem and works by Cipriano de Rore – one hopes that at some point funding might allow them to commit the votive antiphons from the Peterhouse repertoire to disc. They proved most compelling in a live setting.  

Votive antiphons were extra-liturgical and traditionally performed in the evening, after Vespers and Compline, by a group of singers gathered around an altar or icon. Marian antiphons were most common and were represented on the concert by two pieces, Arthur Chamberlayne’s Ave Gratia plena Maria and Ludford’s Salve Regina. The former is a vibrant piece articulating a thoughtfully expanded trope of the “Hail Mary” text. Described by Metcalfe as “a word salad,” it does indeed contain a great number of independent lines in overlapping declamation. The sole piece attributed to its author, it provided a tantalizing glimpse of the idiosyncrasies permitted during this time of musical innovation and diversity. Ludford’s uses a more traditional text and is gentler in demeanor; as Metcalfe suggested, a valediction wishing those gathered to hear the antiphon a peaceful evening. 

The other three antiphons invoked various saints. O Willhelme, pastor bone, by John Taverner, was the lone short work here, clocking in at around three minutes; the rest were each about a quarter of an hour in duration. The piece has a fascinating backstory for those who study the history of the Tudors. It was written for Cardinal College, Oxford, where Taverner was instructor of the choirboys, to its patron Saint William, Archbishop of York. It also includes a verse uplifting Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who founded Cardinal College. Yes, that Cardinal Wolsey, the one who ran afoul of Henry VIII because of his thwarted attempts to obtain a divorce for the monarch. The piece itself is full of Taverner’s characteristic sustained high lines and contains some lovely harmonies. 

Blue Heron at Corpus Christi Church. Photo: Alex Rainer.

One of the composers that Sandon has helped to reinvigorate with his scholarly writings, as well as score restorations, is Hugh Aston. Blue Heron have been champions of Aston since 1999, their founding year. The composer is well-represented on the Lost Music of Canterbury, which, among several pieces, includes his own Marian motet, Ave Maria dive matris Anne, a work of eloquence and fervent yearning: one of the highlights of the CD set. The concert program featured Aston’s O baptista vates Christi, a supplication to Saint John the Baptist. One can see why Blue Heron would like to sing O Baptista: the text asks for protection for the choir, and what choir doesn’t sometimes need protecting? Of course, no such safeguards were necessary at Corpus Christi Church: Music Before 1800 attracts a friendly audience for the group. 

While the aforementioned antiphons impressed, the most remarkable composition on the program was the first one the group performed, O Albane deo grate by Robert Fayrfax. This piece features prominently in Fayrfax’s output. He also fashioned a setting of it dedicated to Mary, O Maria deo grata, with the same music but different words, and used its material as the basis for his parody mass Missa Albanus. The words here commemorate Saint Alban, traditionally considered the first British Christian martyr. Metcalfe usually allows the music to speak for itself, limiting himself to brief introductory remarks. However, before beginning the performance of O Albane, he gave a short demonstration of just a few of the myriad musical treatments by Fayrfax of the plainchant on which it is based. This proved most illuminating, as one could look forward to hearing the hymn fragment interwoven into the counterpoint at key places in the work. Equally enlightening was Metcalfe’s post-concert talkback, in which he fielded questions on a variety of topics, from Reformation worship practices to score restoration to sixteenth century tuning in England. I look forward to hearing Blue Heron again very soon. On March 9th,I will be making a pilgrimage to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to hear them sing Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum. Look for coverage here on the site. 

(For more about the Lost Music of Canterbury 5 CD boxed set, see www.blueheron.org)