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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 27 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 52
Magical medieval holiday music at St. James Cathedral
Arts & Entertainment
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Magical medieval holiday music at St. James Cathedral

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

BLUE HERON
EARLY MUSIC GUILD
ST. JAMES CATHEDRAL
December 7


As I settled into my front-row seat at St. James Cathedral for this concert by Blue Heron, I noticed the pre-teen African American girl sitting next to me. While her grandmotherly companion sought out the rest room, I began a conversation with this lively girl. I asked her if she was aware of how the Cathedral's acoustics would color everything we were going to hear; to my amazement, she was! In overhearing subsequent talk between her and the much older woman, I was astounded by the tutoring that was taking place, all relevant to the imminent program. How I wish my Seattle childhood had included such exposure!

Neither the little girl nor I were disappointed by either the sounds of the Cathedral or the music of Blue Heron. We began with darkness, out of which arose a single male voice intoning the ancient carol, 'Veni, veni, Emanuel,' with other voices joining in the following verses. What followed was a program of seasonal music from the 13th-15th centuries, all sung by various combinations of two women and eight men. They used lighting and various placements around the Cathedral to add impact, making full use of the magical acoustic of the stone walls and floors. The only instrument, used just a few times, was a medieval harp, played by Scott Metcalfe, Blue Heron's director.

A most telling moment saw the whole group singing while facing our seats, so that we got a lot of direct sound, followed immediately by the group facing a different direction, giving us mostly reflected sound. The effect of this change was thrilling: the little girl and I exchanged knowing glances!

All the singers were wonderful, among which was one male alto and one or two (?) male sopranos. One of these, a large, though not overweight man, had such reserves of power in the upper registers that I was reminded of the great Wagnerian soprano, Birgit Nilsson! Needless to say, the blending of these voices, aided in no small part by those stone walls, was flawless.

No home sound system can yet reproduce the glories of cathedral resonance. Even with a full orchestra playing Debussy in Salisbury Cathedral, I heard every detail despite the incredibly submersive effects of all those reverberations. There's simply no place for any sound to escape or get swallowed in carpets or upholstery. Hard, wooden chairs are indeed required to preserve this sound. With only a few voices, the effect of this acoustic is all the more amazing. (Once the music began, I didn't notice that I had forgotten to bring padding!)

Lest I appear more interested in St. James Cathedral than in the music of this program, let me mention that this music was so glorious in itself that, despite not being able to understand some of the mostly Latin texts, I was never less than enchanted by the flow of both plainsong and polyphonic harmonies. Although full translations were indeed provided in the printed program, the music by itself provided a very full and satisfying meal, without trying to read the text while listening.

The large Cathedral was sold out for this Early Music Guild program of 'Advent and Christmas in Medieval England.' I'm sure no one left disappointed.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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