NEW YORK – On Sunday, the Vienna Boys Choir performed a Christmas program at Carnegie Hall. It included much standard Christmas fare, both carols and pops selections. However, there were also a number of more substantial pieces, both Renaissance polyphony and 20/21st century music. The superlative musicianship of both the choir and its director/pianist Manuel Huber were impressive throughout, and the flexibility in navigating the various styles of the programmed music seamlessly was noteworthy.
Although the membership rotates through some hundred members at a given time, with various touring groups and educational activities, the sound of the choir remains distinctive. Unlike English boys choirs, the sound up top is narrower yet retains a bell-like consistency. Several members of the group are in the midst of their voices changing, which allowed for tenor and baritone registers to be accessed in select places. The retention of adolescents not only allows for the group’s larger compass, it is also a compassionate way to treat young people, flouting the long tradition of dismissing choristers whose voices have “broken.”
The choir entered from offstage singing plainchant. This was followed by a selection of Latin church music by Palestrina, Duruflé, Salazar, and Verdi. The latter piece was the most taxing on the program and the singers navigated it with aplomb. Gerald Wirth has long been the music director for Vienna Boys Choir, arranging and composing pieces for the group. The Sanctus-Benedictus from his Missa-apostolica showed the choir’s voices to best advantage. Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s pentatonic vocalization of Gamelan sounds was another winning selection. A nod to America included “I Bought Me a Cat” from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs, “Somewhere” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, and Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”On the pops selections, choirmaster Manuel Huber provided jaunty accompaniments at the piano with cocktail jazz embellishments.
The second half of the program was divided between carols and pops selections. Es ist ein Rose entsprungen, Adeste Fideles, O Holy Night, and otherswere performed with gossamer tone and considerable musicianship, putting paid the many stolid renditions one must endure during the holiday shopping season. A new carol to me, Es Wird sho glei dumpa, from Upper Austria, will certainly feature in my own Christmas performances in the future.
The closing set of pops numbers included “White Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – it was once again impressive to hear the change in tone the choir was able to adopt between stylistic margins of the program. The inclusion of “Let it Snow,” which is more suggestive than the other pops tunes, marked a questionable choice. Ending with “Stille Nacht” made far more sense for this fine group of young singers.
NEW YORK – ECM Records has released a number of great solo bass recordings. The label’s producer, Manfred Eicher, was himself a bassist, and he has invited a number of fellow low string players to record for ECM. Barre Phillips is a pathfinder in the genre, releasing one of the first solo bass recordings, Journal Violone, on Opus One in 1968. Eicher and he have been keen collaborators for many years, beginning in 1971 with a duo recording of Phillips with Dave Holland, Music from Two Basses, the first of its kind, which was followed by a number of solo and ensemble outings for ECM. In 2018, the imprint released what was announced as Phillips last solo CD, End to End, which he called the last entry in his “Journal Violone.”
It has been more than thirty years since Phillips last performed in New York. Originally from San Francisco and long a resident of France, much of the bassist’s career has been made playing in Europe. On Monday, May 20th, he appearedat the Zürcher Gallery, an art venue on Bleecker Street in lower Manhattan. The crowd was standing room only and contained a number of jazz and experimental music luminaries. They were attentive and enthusiastic throughout.
Phillips turns eighty-five in October. In his performance on Monday night, he appeared energetic and fit. He easily hoisted a sizeable double bass to his shoulder, and deftly moved it around to play its entirety: not just the strings. His playing and demeanor are vibrant, inquisitive, and often imbued with puckish humor.
The bassist gave a veritable masterclass of standard and extended playing techniques. The latter appear prolifically on End to End, among them high harmonics, different varieties of strumming such as plucking notes with both hands, a number of approaches to bowing, microtones, glissandos, and all manner of percussive playing. However, the CD intersperses these with a fair bit of cantabile playing. Less of that was on offer live. Instead, with a mischievous twinkle and disarming banter, Phillips went to work showing what it meant to “do your own thing” when, as he described it, career paths in more traditional jazz and classical music were denied him.
Each piece, most of them improvised but some selections fromEnd to End that had been crafted into compositions, centered on a different palette of techniques. At times Phillips played his instrument caressingly, seeming to coax delicate high notes and thrumming vibrations from the strings at a pianissimo dynamic. At others, he virtually attacked the instrument, scratching it from stem to stern with his bow. If a luthier were in attendance, they would have likely had a panic attack.
There was considerable variation in the harmonic vocabulary employed. Some of the music was in the ‘out’ post-tonal language of free jazz. Phillips also supplied an etude of octaves, another of open string drones, a third a chameleon-like shift to Eastern scales and gestures, and on “Inner Door, Pt. 4,” a plaintive modal jazz solo grounded in double-stopped fifths. Here, as elsewhere, Phillips displayed a penchant for executing a long, unerringly controlled decrescendo, bringing the music to a whispered close. Zürcher was an ideal location in which to hear these small details: an intimate space but one with good acoustics.
It is unfortunate that New Yorkers haven’t had more opportunities to hear Barre Phillips up close and personal. His performance was an unforgettable experience. Phillips joins Mat Maneri, Emilie Lesbros, and Hank Roberts for a performance on Saturday night at 8 PM at Brooklyn’s I-Beam. One more chance …
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.
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.
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.
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.
NEW YORK – On Saturday, December 8th, pianist Simone Dinnerstein made a return appearance to Miller Theatre to perform an intriguing and eclectic solo recital. The stage was set with subdued lighting, with electric “candles” placed throughout and, over the course of the evening, small shifts of color. Ms. Dinnerstein, dressed in elegant, flowing attire, created an atmosphere through her performance demeanor as well. The recital was announced with no intermission and the pianist paused from playing only once, midway through, to acknowledge applause and take a brief break. However, by otherwise starting each piece immediately after the final notes of the one it preceded, she communicated clearly that this was not to be an event in which musical continuity would be broken by applause between numbers. Thankfully the audience complied, mutually agreeing to allow the atmosphere to envelop them too.
Dinnerstein played two pieces by the Eighteenth century harpsichord composer Francois Couperin, one at the beginning and another right before the break. This is the first time she has programmed the composer. Her approach to Les Barriades mystérieueses was sonorous, eschewing ornamentation in favor of unadorned, shapely melodies. Like the Goldberg Variations, the second piece required interlacing the hands to play everything on the piano keyboard that would have required two manuals on the harpsichord. Le Tic-Toc-Choc, ou Les Mallotins featured motoric clockwork and brisk filigrees that were an excellent foil for the Philip Glass work that immediately preceded it.
Mad Rush (1979),one of Glass’s best known piano pieces, was first composed for the organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where the composer performed it for an appearance by the Dalai Lama. Arranged for piano, the piece is forceful and filled with contrasts. Its delicate passages were played with a spacious sense of breath by Dinnerstein, while the more emphatic central section in piece’s the repeating loop was performed powerfully with fleet-fingered accuracy. Last year, Dinnerstein’s account of Glass’s Third Piano Concerto was impressive; here, she made a further case for a place in the pantheon of Glass pianists. Contrast played a large role in Dinnerstein’s rendition of Robert Schumann’s Arabesque. Once again, she emphasized the breath between phrases, allowing the audience a sense of deft transition between the various emotive sections as they unspun.
Erik Satie’s Gnossiene No. 3 received the mysterious performance its ambiguous markings and lack of bar-lines evokes. One part cafe music and another modal Impressionist excursion, the piece was rendered with an evasive, lilting quality.
The pianist, in general, avoids overt and flashy displays of hyper-virtuosity, preferring instead to pick distinct places in which she allows her playing to be unrestrained. Dinnerstein’s performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana provided several excellent opportunities for effusive virtuosity, and they seemed all the more special for the way that the pianist set them in relief against the more contemplative portions of the work. Fleet arpeggiations flew and the fugal passage in the final movement was a brisk cannonade.
Dinnerstein’s aforementioned penchant for allowing the music to breathe, as well as the atmosphere she created for her performance, encouraged a normally bustling New York audience to truly slow down and breathe themselves: a welcome respite during the busy holiday season. When the encore she favored them with was not some barnstormer but instead a reprise of Les Barriades, allowing the program to come full circle, it seemed entirely appropriate.
NEW YORK – The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, made their annual appearance in New York as part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music series at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Midtown. The program was billed as a dual celebration — the 45th anniversary of the Tallis Scholars and Miller Theatre’s 30th anniversary season.
In honor of the occasion, Miller Theatre commissioned a new piece for the Tallis Scholars by composer Nico Muhly. Muhly has, of late, garnered a great deal of attention for two Metropolitan Opera commissions — Two Boys and Marnie — but he often talks about his first love being choral music (he began his musical career as a chorister). Muhly’s choral works are exquisitely crafted and texturally luminous. Rough Notes (2018), his new piece for the concert at St. Mary’s, took its texts from two diary entries by Robert Falcon Scott, written near the end of his ill-fated voyage to Antarctica. The first excerpt describes the aurora australis, providing words such as “arches, bands, and curtains” that are ripe for colorful musical setting. The second was Scott’s stoic expression of confidence in his team’s ability to accept their impending deaths with dignity. Muhly’s use of lush cluster chords in the first section gave way to more sharply etched, but still glinting, harmonies in the second, as well as poignantly arcing melodies. The divided choir of ten voices was skilfully overlapped to sound like many times that number. It is always fascinating to hear the Tallis Scholars switch centuries, and thus style, to perform contemporary repertoire; for instance, their CD of Arvo Pärt’s music is a treasure. One hopes that they might collaborate on a recording with Muhly in the future.
The rest of the program was of considerably earlier music, but ranged widely in chronology. The earliest piece was an elegant and under-heralded Magnificat setting by John Nesbett from the late Fifteenth century that is found in the Eton Choirbook. Chant passages give way to various fragments of the ensemble that pit low register vs. high for much of the piece. It culminates by finally bringing all the voices together in a rousing climax. The Tallis Scholars has, of yet, not recorded Nesbett, but Peter Phillips has committed the Magnificat to disc in an inspired performance with the Choir of Merton College, Oxford (The Marian Collection, Delphian, 2014).
Palestrina’s motet Hodie Christus natus est, and the eponymous parody mass which uses this as its source material, were the centerpiece of the concert. The motet was performed jubilantly and with abundant clarity. The mass is one of Palestrina’s finest. He took the natural zest of its source material, added plenty of contrapuntal elaborations, and made subtle shifts to supply a thoughtful rendition of the text. Although we are, in terms of the liturgical calendar, in the midst of the reflective period of Advent, being propelled forward to the midst of some of the most ebullient yet substantial Christmas music of the Renaissance was a welcome inauguration of the season.
The two works that concluded the concert dealt with different aspects of the Christmas story. William Byrd’s Lullaby is actually quite an unsettling piece; its text deals with the Slaughter of the Innocents as ordered by Herod. One is left to imagine the infant Jesus being consoled by Mary and Joseph in the midst of their flight from persecution. Byrd composed it in the Sixteenth century (it was published in 1588), but Lullaby was the piece on the concert most tailored to this moment, evoking concerns of our time: the plight of refugees, the slaughter of innocent bystanders by acts of senseless aggression: particularly the vulnerability of children to indiscriminate bombing abroad and the epidemic of gun violence in our own country.
The last piece returned to a festive spirit and brought the Tallis Scholars to the cusp of the Baroque with Hieronymus Praetorius’s Magnificat V with interpolations of two carols: Joseph lieber, Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo. During the Christmas season, interspersing carols and sections of the Magnificat was a standard practice in Baroque-era Lutheran churches; J.S. Bach might even have done so in the services he led at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Praetorius plus two carols gave the Tallis Scholars an opportunity to share three of their most-performed Christmas pieces. From seemingly effortless floating high notes to sonorous bass singing, with tons of deftly rendered imitative passages in the inner voices, the group made a glorious sound. One eagerly awaits their return to New York during their 46th season.