A Devotional Chat

The Boston Musical Intelligencer published an interview/chat between Jason and Scott Metcalfe, director of Blue Heron, about Friday's concert. Feel free to read the original here or peruse the text below!

A Far Cry will be teaming up with Blue Heron for a performance of Faure’s Requiem this Friday. The first half of the program centers on the “Song of Songs,” and features a “conversation” between the two groups as they perform, separately but interspersed, a combination of Nicolas Gombert’s motets on the “Song of Songs,” Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur’s Le Cantique des Cantiques and Jean Francaix’s Symphonie d’Archets. Jason Fisher, the Crier program curator, and Scott Metcalfe, Blue Heron’s director share their discussion to BMInt readers.

BMInt: How did this collaboration initially come about?

Jason: Well, the program and collaboration are really two different tracks that came together early on. The program began in the way that many A Far Cry programs do, with one person coming up with the initial conception. I came to the group wanting to do a Faure Requiem program, using the original 1893 version, and once that hit the ground with the group, it turned into an all-French program idea. Very early on, before the program was even approved, we brought up the question of who we wanted to do it with. Of course we would do it with Blue Heron if they said yes. But would they say yes? After all, they’re an early music group!

Scott: And we didn’t even consider saying no! Blue Heron is first and foremost a vocal ensemble. Sure, we’re a vocal ensemble that mostly does music written between 1400 and 1600, but all of us do music from way before and way after, and many of us specialize in new music as well. And a lot of the skills that we’ve acquired in this context apply to other music, exactly as they do for you.

What does that skill-transfer look like in the context of the Faure Requiem?

Scott: Everyone loves the Requiem, for good reason—it’s one of the greatest pieces ever – and it’s a great opportunity for us to bring the sort of “inquisitive” approach that we use for earlier music to Faure. (And Faure is early music, in a sense, right?) There’s a lot of information there about what we want to try. The French Latin is a great example. We’re not doing that because Faure did it – though we know he did, for sure. The pronunciation of French Latin as though it were more like French fits the melodic lines of the piece better than Italianate declamation, and so it’s clearly what he had in mind. This is usually what you’ll find when you start doing French pronunciation is that actually it shows you how to do melodies in French music. It’s very much the case in this piece, since Faure’s really a French Classicist. He’s a Romantic with a very, very, upright sense of a Classical background.

Jason: And I think one thing that drew us to Blue Heron in particular, amongst the things that you said, was that we knew you would have that curiosity, to want to do the exploration and really want to approach it in a very defined and thoughtful way And of course you are known in town for much the same reason that we are: for making music in a chamber music atmosphere. A lot of people come to hear A Far Cry not necessarily because of what we program but because of the way we perform, and I think a lot of people come to Blue Heron concerts for that reason too. And that’s an exciting thing about this collaboration – because our audiences are going to meet each other, and they’re both here for that similar kind of collaboration, rather than just hearing the Faure Requiem. And hopefully those who do come just to hear the Requiem will be delightfully surprised.

How do you imagine people will experience the “engineered” first half of the program that joins several works?

Scott: That was really Jason’s idea, to make this Francaix/Daniel-Lesur conversation, flirtation, which reinterprets both pieces in light of each other. It could have been just an arbitrary thought, but in fact it’s a beautiful marriage of the two pieces, because they do seem to converse with each other. Besides, they’re written in largely the same style – they’re only four years apart.

Jason: When we talked about adding the Daniel-Lesur to the Francaix, I started to listen to the two pieces together on my playlist. I was jumping back and forth between the two works, and there were a few times when I thought “Whoa – that was crazy! Let me do that again!” and the concept of the interlacing took shape.

Scott: They were talking to each other!

What does it feel like to perform in Old South Church?

Scott: It’s beautiful! The sound is lovely, the setup is sensible, and Old South Church’s organ is as perfect as you’d find in this town.

Jason: It’s a large space to fill but feels intimate, not cavernous. Even when you’re on stage, it doesn’t feel like you’re playing into a bathtub, it feels like you’re playing to something very familiar.

Scott: A number of the singers have also sung in the choir here, so they’re very familiar with the space.

How does the “Song of Songs” inform the program—and why pair such a sexy text with the more chaste Faure Requiem?

Jason: First of all, about the Faure, anyone who doesn’t think that two violas in split harmony and two cellos in split harmony, and harp isn’t sexy... well, let’s just say I don’t think we’d make it past the first date.

Scott: The Daniel-Lesur is extremely sensuous, and it’s very frankly about sexuality. We’re in America, so sex is either conceived of as pornographic or somehow naughty. But this is not the right way to think about either of the “Song of Songs” settings. It’s like the question: Is this sacred, or is it secular? The answer is “Yes.” And these all show it in different ways. I would never argue that the Requiem is a sensuous text in the way that the “Song of Songs” is. But it’s profound—I mean, all music is about sensuality; it’s about sound and emotion and things that can’t be conveyed in words.

Jason: On a basic level, the first half is profound, but the second half is sacred.

Scott: And the Gombert is right in the middle. Now those motets are EXTREMELY sexy. There are incredibly dissonant overlaps, all these false relations—and this is a liturgical piece. He’s really pushing it one way. And the Daniel-Lesur is a secular, a non-liturgical piece, which is very religious as well.

Jason: It’s an interesting combination of contexts.

Jean Françaix seems to be best known for frothy wind concoctions. Is his Symphonie d’archets serious?

Jason: Curiously, Francaix has become somewhat of a staple in our recent repertoire. This fall, we performed his narrative work Gargantua with Robert Pinsky, and before that, we tackled his six Preludes for strings. All of the music that we’ve explored has had a playful side, but also something extremely tender, a little whimsical but also wistful. There’s always a bit of irony hiding away. But I don’t believe that makes the work any less serious. In a way, Francaix’s music is extremely honest, and refreshing. Actually, we recently received an email from his son in Paris, who was happy to hear that we had performed Gargantua. Hopefully he’ll be tuning in to our live stream on Friday night!

Scott: Just a couple of weeks ago, I discovered an Ode to Gastronomy for 12 voices, written by Francaix. He was doing everything!

Any danger of A Far Cry running out of string symphonies?

Jason: We get that question a lot, but we’ve actually found it to be true that our repertoire options keep expanding the longer we stay together. It’s true that there are only a few of the truly “classic” string serenades like the Tchaikovsky, but there is actually a huge amount of other repertoire available to us. And unlike a symphony orchestra, which has about 200 years of music to choose from, we can select repertoire from pretty much any point in music history: Baroque, Renaissance, even early vocal music. When you add in the fact that nearly every culture has some kind of string instrument, and the possibilities for crossover projects, you have a huge, nearly unprecedented, body of repertoire—which is crowned by a number of string quartets that we’ve been able to re-imagine for a larger group. Of course, this week has made us excited about something else entirely: the potential for more collaborations with voices. Stay tuned on that front! We have a whole violin section that didn’t get to play the Faure, and they are hungry for another project!