Blue Heron ensemble captivates at Dumbarton Oaks

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron made its Washington debut this week on the Friends of Music series at Dumbarton Oaks. The ensemble's captivating program of 15th-century polyphonic chansons, heard Monday night, featured five of the group's singers in various combinations and sometimes supported by instruments.

It is rare to hear live performances of this secular music of the early Renaissance, perhaps because its pre-tonal dissonance and sometimes forbidding rhythmic complexity make audiences and performers uncomfortable in a way not unlike the reaction of some to post-tonal music. Blue Heron's approach was to present this music as works intended for soloists, with the singers mostly one on a part. The long, flowing melismas, or chains of notes on a single syllable that conclude many phrases especially in Burgundian chansons, were interwoven by the singers like the tendrils of vines in the tapestry hanging behind the performers in the Music Room at Dumbarton Oaks.

The most consistently lovely sounds came from tenor Aaron Sheehan and bass-baritone Paul Guttry, blending seamlessly and in pure intonation with the other voices. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Tosic sang with some unusual but striking colors in her voice, which mixed nicely in its virile low range with the male voices, as in the gorgeous "Je ne vis onques la pareille" by Binchois. Countertenor Martin Near was able to place his small but agile voice expertly at the top of the texture, at his best in Walter Frye's "Alas, alas, alas is my chief song." The only false note of the evening was the rambling introductions to each set by the group's talented music director, Scott Metcalfe: When it comes to such distractions, a little goes a long way.

-- Charles T. Downey

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