Out of the Box: Franco-Flemish Beauty with Blue Heron

Dec 6, 2019

There is nothing that compares to vocal music during the holidays, especially when it’s the vocal music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, performed by the superb local choir, Blue Heron.

WHAT: Two 2019 Blue Heron albums - Johannes Ockeghem Complete Songs, Vol. 1 & Cipriano de Rore I madrigali a cinque voci

MUST LISTEN: Johannes Ockeghem's "Mort tu as navré de don tart / Miserere" | Cipriano de Rore's "Quand'io son tutto volto in quella parte" & "Soleo lontana," with readings of the Petrarch poems by Alessandro Quarta

WHY THIS ALBUM: Because it's the perfect time of year for Medieval and Renaissance vocal music! And because Blue Heron is without a doubt one of the most refined and elegant purveyors of it.

This week's Out of the Box segment is no longer available on-demand. 

The human voice is by far the most ethereal, perhaps even the most mystical of musical instruments. Am I biased in that assertion? Absolutely. I was, after all, a singer for a number of years. But I stand by it nonetheless.

I think I find the human voice so magical because it is our only biological instrument. It's not made up of reeds and wires and wood and sound boards. Instead, the voice is tiny tendons and muscles in our throats that are operated, often involuntarily, by the human brain, and stimulated only by our breath. 

The human voice is unlike any other instrument because it is a pure extension of ourselves.

As we come to the darkest days of the year, and as we're increasingly attracted to fireplaces and candlelight, the mystical qualities of the human voice seem to resonate (pun intended) even more. I find that's especially true with vocal music from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance - chants, masses, motets, madrigals, and more. When you hear it, when it comes into your life, I find you can't help but be immediately transported back in time.

And that's why I wanted to feature the two newest albums by Boston's own Blue Heron for this December episode of "Out of the Box." Not because they have anything to do with "the Holidays" - they don't - but because this music just sounds so right at this time of year.

The first of the albums features songs by Johannes Ockeghem written in the middle of the 15th century. It is the first of two volumes of Ockeghem songs, the second of which will be released in 2022, and is part of Blue Heron's impressive Ockeghem@600 project. The second album is the world premiere recording of Cipriano de Rore's 1542 book of Madrigals for 5 Voices. This album is particularly lovely because along with the music it features Alessandro Quarta's readings of the Italian poems that de Rore set to music.

Music Director and co-founder of Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe
Credit New England Conservatory

Now, if you want Blue Heron performing Holiday music, you're in luck! Their concert Christmas in Baroque Germany is coming up on December 21 and 22 at First Church in Cambridge, and I highly encourage attending one of the three performances that weekend, because their Christmas concerts are amazing.

When I first saw Blue Heron live, I was floored by the experience they crafted for their audiences, effortlessly relaying that every action, every movement we were enjoying was deliberate and clearly thought out. Yes, the music was impeccable, but it was more than that. They moved with grace and elegance about the room, singing music from across the centuries, as the bright stage lights gradually transitioned to candlelight over the course of the evening. It was the ultimate transportive experience, such that moments after the concert began I found that I was no longer at First Church in Cambridge, but instead in some distant, tapestry-lined stone hall in medieval Europe, enraptured by the majesty of the unknown and holy world around me.   

What Blue Heron achieves with their collection of voices, both live in concert and through their studio recordings, is second to none, and I hope that in listening to this music you are transported as much as I was. Enjoy!