The little known secret about the singers of Blue Heron, its director Scott Metcalfe told a large audience at Old South Church on Friday night, was that these exacting practitioners of a recondite Renaissance repertoire also happen to love “new music.” And by new music, Metcalfe deadpanned, he meant the Fauré Requiem, which was completed in 1900.
So Blue Heron apparently jumped when A Far Cry, the self-directed chamber orchestra, invited it to join forces for a collaborative program anchored by the Fauré. Friday’s concert presented the considerable fruit of their joint labor.
At first blush these two ensembles might seem unlikely partners, given at least their outward differences in style. A Far Cry has built its reputation in part through its exuberant, unbuttoned, and visceral approach to performance, while a typical Blue Heron concert is a model of deep but impeccably poised expression within a frame of medieval-modernist austerity.
But in truth commonalities between these two groups — in their entrepreneurial approaches and, most importantly, their high artistic standards — of course outweigh superficial distinctions in style. Friday’s program also notably built on another common quality shared by both ensembles: creative takes on programming.
Specifically the first half was dominated by the suggestive pairing of two rarely encountered French works of the mid-20th century: Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur’s “Le Cantique des Cantiques” and Jean Françaix’s “Symphonie d’archets.”
The former is a remarkably distinctive setting of the biblical “Song of Songs.” Daniel-Lesur was a composer and organist who occupied a cultural niche not far from that of Olivier Messiaen, but as Blue Heron artfully demonstrated, his work stands securely on its own terms. The choir brought out both the lavishly layered opulence of sound at the center of this score as well as the unique qualities of its harmonic world, at once daringly sensual and somehow spiritually refined.
The Françaix selection from A Far Cry played more to type, as after a slower introduction the first movement tripped lightly down Haussmann-eque boulevards. But there were unexpected shadows here too, especially as the slow movement built with intensity and turned voluptuously dark. Tentacular solos for viola and violin rose up and receded again into the musical fabric. Still, in the later movements, a Parisian insouciance returns undimmed and the work ends in resolutely high spirits. The Criers, as the ensemble members call themselves, played with their signature blend of polish and joie de vivre. Also, in a nice touch, the movements from the two scores were presented in alternation, and as an apt introduction to the program, Blue Heron began with a pair of Gombert motets on texts from the “Song of Songs.”
The Fauré Requiem was of course the familiar masterwork in this more obscure company, yet even so, this performance gave the choral favorite a fresh visage by employing smaller, almost chamber-scaled vocal forces; Fauré’s lighter orchestration of 1893; and a period French-inflected pronunciation of the Latin text. These qualities all no doubt contributed to a performance of rare grace, serenity, and style. The precision of Blue Heron’s choral blend was something to behold, and the singers were met artfully at every turn by the members of A Far Cry. Special recognition goes to the fine soloists Margot Rood (soprano), David McFerrin (bass), and Paul Guttry (bass). Robyn Bollinger (violin) floated her shapely solos from a balcony, which seemed in truth like an unnecessary staging gimmick in an otherwise superbly judged performance.
A Far Cry + Blue Heron
At Old South Church, Friday Night