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

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

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)

Fred Hersch Trio – Live at the Village Vanguard

Fred Hersch Trio.
Photo: John Rogers.

Fred Hersch Trio

Village Vanguard

January 5, 2019

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – Beginning the new year with a six-night long residency at the Village Vanguard, pianist Fred Hersch had a lot to celebrate. His current trio, in which he is joined by bassist John Hebert and drummer Kevin McPherson, has been together for a decade. They have received a Grammy nomination for their 2018 Palmetto Records CD Live in Europe. In December, Palmetto released another recording of Hersch in a trio setting, this one from 1997 with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. 97 @ The Village Vanguard is the only live recording of this acclaimed ensemble. The CD also documents Hersch’s debut as a leader at the Village Vanguard.

 

Many celebrations include guests and Hersch’s residency was no exception. For the last three nights of shows, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, a Grammy nominee himself and a Guggenheim Fellow and MacArthur Award winner to boot, joined the trio. It proved to be a felicitous pairing. After the trio opened the set with Hersch’s meditative “Plainsong,” Zenón joined them on the pianist’s salsa original “Havana,” sending its sinuous melody soaring and building an exquisitely paced solo. Hebert and McPherson created a fulsome groove. McPherson’s ability to move from the pianissimo textural playing of “Plainsong” to the driving polyrhythms of “Havana” demonstrated versatility that turns on a dime. Hebert keenly targeted his playing too, moving between registers, engaging in melodic colloquy with Hersch, supporting the changes, and acting in concert with McPherson. All of this is even more noteworthy when one considers his uncanny ability to know exactly when and where to provide Hersch’s playing registral space.

 

Hersch’s music is often rhythmically intricate. In addition to the facility of the rhythm section, Zenón proved his mettle in the abstract phrasing and polyrhythmic environments of Hersch tunes “Snape Maltings” and “Skipping.” The latter tune elicited a verve-filled solo from Hersch. The pianist and saxophonist also made great foils for each other, one developing melodic breadcrumbs that the other had strewn in a previous solo. Zenón’s playing had a bite in the post-bop material, but was smooth and suave in the Lerner and Loewe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Zenón’s composition “Temes” was an engaging part of the set, and it was fascinating to hear Hersch go to town on material new to him, displaying  a vivid imagination.

Hersch frequently writes compositions in homage to other jazz artists. “Lee’s Dream” is a contrafact tune, using the changes of Nacio Herb Brown’s “You Stepped Out of a Dream” with a new melody. It is dedicated to Lee Konitz. “Monk’s Dream” is dedicated to Thelonious Monk. During his set at the Vanguard, Hersch had Monk in mind. The closer was a one-two punch of the pianist’s harmonically inventive version of “Round Midnight,” followed by the group playing a rousing rendition of “Let’s Cool One.” Obliged by applause to share an encore, Hersch chose Billy Joel’s “And So it Goes,” starting in eloquent simplicity and then transforming the tune with intriguing modulations into a Chopin-esque reverie. The sold-out crowd seemed delighted to share in the celebrations.

 

Best of 2018: Orchestral CDs

Best of 2018 – Orchestral CDs

 

In ictu oculi

Kenneth Hesketh

BBC Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Christoph Mathias Mueller

Paladino

 

Three large orchestra works by British composer Kenneth Hesketh are attractively scored in multifaceted, often muscular, fashion. Hesketh’s unabashed exploration of emotionality, imbued with strongly etched motives and intricate formal designs, provides a cathartic journey for listeners.

 

Sur Incises

Pierre Boulez

The Boulez Ensemble, conducted by Daniel Barenboim

Deutsche-Grammophon

 

There is a previous, much vaunted, studio recording of Pierre Boulez’s composition  Sur Incises (1998), one of the composer’s most highly regarded late works (in the year of its premiere, Sur Incises won the Grawemeyer Prize). This 2018 rendition of the work was performed live at a new space dedicated to Boulez, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. Acoustically marvelous, it is perhaps the ideal location in which to hear the composer’s music. Barenboim is one of Boulez’s great champions, and the ensemble gathered here play it with supple rhythms (slightly less ‘incisive’ than the studio version, but warmer in affect). They also deftly shape Sur Incises’ labyrinthine form to provide musical “bread crumbs” along its myriad pathways.

 

Berio: Sinfonia – Boulez: Notations I-IV – Ravel: La Valse

Roomful of Teeth, Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Seattle Symphony Media

 

Composed in 1968-’69 for the New York Philharmonic and the Swingle Singers, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia helped to herald postmodernism in music. Roomful of Teeth has now done the piece with the Philharmonic, providing a new generation of performance history for Berio. It is excellent to have Roomful of Teeth’s performance of Sinfonia documented in a superlative outing with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot. The orchestra is equally scintillating in Pierre Boulez’s long gestated modernist masterpieces Notations I-IV. The disc is capped off with a rollicking rendition of Ravel’s La Valse.

 

Shostakovich: Symphonies 4 and 11 (“The Year 1905”) Live

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, conductor

Deutsche-Grammophon

 

Even with an ensemble as fine as the Boston Symphony, it is hard to believe that this is a live recording. Seamless transitions, admirable dynamic shading,  gorgeous sounding strings, and exceptional playing by the brass section. Nelsons has a great feel for Shostakovich’s music.

 

Harbison, Ruggles, Stucky: Orchestral Works

National Orchestra Institute Philharmonic, David Alan Miller, conductor

Naxos

 

David Alan Miller has long been a staunch advocate of contemporary music, recording a number of discs of new works with the Albany Symphony. The National Orchestra Institute Philharmonic’s young players, aged 15-21, are a fantastic ensemble in their own right. Their rendition of Carl Ruggles’ Sun Treader is up there with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas on the complete works recording; and that’s saying something.

 

Recently departed composer Steven Stucky created a fluently retrospective piece when composing Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 (2003); the piece won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. It includes quotations from a host of great composers as well as ample amounts of music in Stucky’s masterful contemporary voice.

 

Composed for the Seattle Symphony and Gerard Schwarz in 2003, John Harbison’s Symphony No. 4 is one of his most compelling pieces in the genre. In the debut recording, the Boston Symphony’s rendition of the symphony took a fairly edgy approach. Miller elicits something more lissome from the NOI players. Both versions make an eloquent case for Harbison’s piece.

 

Topophony

Christopher Fox

John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, Alex Dörner, Paul Lovens, soloists

WDR Sinfonie-Orchester, Ivan Volkov, conductor

HatHut

 

Christopher Fox’s orchestral work Tophophony accommodates both renditions for orchestra alone and with improvising soloists. The WDR Sinfonie-Orchester, led by Ivan Volkov, record three different versions of the piece. By itself, Topophony has a Feldman-like, slow-moving, and dynamically restrained surface. It provides fertile terrain for both the duos of trumpeter Alex Dörner and drummer Paul Lovens and saxophonist John Butcher with synthesizer performer Thomas Lehn. All three versions are absorbing: it’s fortunate one doesn’t have to choose between them.

Symphony No. 6, Rounds for String Orchestra, and Music for Romeo and Juliet

David Diamond

Indiana University Chamber Orchestra, Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra, Arthur Fagen, conductor

Naxos

 

This is the best recording of David Diamond’s music since the iconic CDs by the Seattle Symphony under the baton of Gerard Schwarz. Indiana University has long had one of the best music departments in the country, but they outdo themselves here, with a brilliant version of Diamond’s Rounds for String Orchestra and nimble phrasing in his Music for Romeo and Juliet. But it is Symphony No. 6 (1951) that is the star of this CD.

Those who relegate all of Diamond’s music to American romanticism (which, admittedly, is a fair assessment of some of his work) are in for a surprise from this bold, Copland-esque work. Indeed, when I was a student at Juilliard, Diamond proudly told me that his ballet Tom predated Copland’s adoption of an Americana style. With Symphony No. 6, Diamond made a strong case to have his work set alongside the “usual suspects” in the genre.

 

Best of 2018: Holiday CD and Opera Recording

Best of 2018: Holiday CD, Opera Recording

Best Holiday CD

Nine Lessons and Carols: 100 Years

King’s College Choir, Stephen Cleobury, Director

Choir of King’s College label

 

2018 is the hundredth anniversary of Lessons and Carols at King’s College (and ninetieth year of radio broadcasts of the event). In order to celebrate, the Choir of King’s College has released a two-CD set of some of their most famous offerings from broadcasts over the years, as well as new music commissioned for the occasion. The release also celebrates Director Stephen Cleobury, who will be stepping down after an illustrious tenure with the group. Through the years, King’s consistent, extraordinarily high level of singing is truly dazzling.

Best Opera

Dr. Atomic

John Adams

Gerald Finley, Julia Bullock; BBC Orchestra, BBC Singers, John Adams, conductor

Nonesuch

 

The Nonesuch recording of Dr. Atomic, an opera about the atomic bomb test at Los Alamos, is the first audio release of this 2005 collaboration between composer John Adams and director/librettist Peter Sellars. The text is assembled from letters, declassified documents, and poetry (the first test’s site was named Trinity by Robert Oppenheimer, after a John Donne poem). An integral component of the love scene between the Oppenheimers (played by Gerald Finley and Julia Bullock)  is a poem by Muriel Rukeyser. An island of respite in the midst of the intensity of the test countdown, it is some of the most affecting music written by Adams. Elsewhere, the orchestra and singers are given plenty of opportunities for fiery declamation. The large ensembles work on many levels, expounding the famously divergent historical viewpoints surrounding the test, ratcheting up the intensity until the inevitable big boom. Adams conducts a powerful performance of his most visceral work.