In addition to being an acoustically gorgeous venue, the sanctuary of Boston’s St. Cecilia Parish is a vibrant visual feast, in sunny yellow, spring-shoot green, and dusty red. Though the colors are bold and distinct, they never clash. The same sentence can be used to describe the voices of Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron, which presented a marvelous 15th-century program on Thursday night in that sanctuary.
Since the 2014-15 season, the Renaissance-focused group has been gradually traversing the complete works of Johannes Ockeghem, a highly influential Franco-Flemish composer whom director Scott Metcalfe has repeatedly named as the 15th century’s equivalent of Bach. The series is set to conclude in 2020-21, just in time for the composer’s 600th anniversary. This year’s two programs in that series focus on secular songs and liturgical music that sampled those songs, by Ockeghem and his contemporaries. Ockeghem’s body of work is relatively small, so works from the same time period often fill out the programs.
Eight singers participated. The first jumping-off point was “Fors seullement l’actente que je meure,” a mournful three-part song of abandonment with a recognizable sighing figure. The singers’ approach was profoundly evocative without theatrics. All the selections had one musician on each part, typical for Blue Heron. This enables the ensemble’s multicolored sound, because there is no need to blend voices on the same line. As a result, it had more in common with a chamber performance than it did a choral concert.
Metcalfe did not conduct at all, but provided entertaining notes in the program book and anecdotes from the stage, advising the audience on how to find the sampled material in each selection and providing historical notes on the musical forms and sometimes opaque texts. He pointed out the “bluster” of one “Fors seullement” variation’s political text, and when the lucent soprano Megan Chartrand and willowy-voiced tenor Jason McStoots sang repeats of the initial material in the song, they did imbue it with a bit of bluster and arrogance, in contrast to Paul Guttry’s long-faced bass line.
Also explored was “Je ne vis onques la pareille” by Ockeghem’s predecessor Gilles Binchois; three singers weaved a three-strand braid of supple, arcing lines. Alexander Agricola’s Credo on that song started out in the same vein; the speed and textual density increased to that of a patter song, and the singers navigated it with good humor and intonation. Johannes Ghiselin’s “Salve regina,” the only song featuring all the singers, unfurled from plainchant to harmony to polyphony with organic grace.
At St. Cecilia Parish, Boston, Thursday. Repeats Saturday in Cambridge. www.blueheron.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.