At this time of year, holiday music filling Seattle’s theaters and concert halls ranges from George Friderich Handel to John Williams, Antonio Vivaldi to Irving Berlin.
That’s a long span — more than three centuries. But Scott Metcalfe, director of Boston-based early-music vocal ensemble Blue Heron, which makes its Seattle debut Saturday with a program called “Advent and Christmas in Medieval England,” thinks his group’s local audience will be thrilled to go deeper into history.
“There’s no reason why music written 500 years ago should be any less accessible to us than music written 200 or 300 years ago,” Metcalfe says. “Music from the past is just as expressive, vital and human as music from what used to be considered the Western canon, which was a pretty narrow view.”
Founded in 1999, the a cappella ensemble Blue Heron has been hailed as America’s version of the 40-year-old Tallis Scholars, leaders in early vocal music, and famously noted by New Yorker critic Alex Ross. Blue Heron’s 10 singers and early harp will perform in the rich acoustics of Seattle’s St. James Cathedral.
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Metcalfe hopes to replicate the “Advent and Christmas” experience Blue Heron delivers each December on its home turf in Cambridge.
“The Christmas season is about anticipation and preparation, waiting for and wanting something to happen,” he says. “This program starts in darkness in Advent with the expectation of a savior to come, then takes us through the Annunciation, then eventually to the birth and Christmas. We’re going to do as much as possible to take advantage of the space and lighting at St. James.
“Fifteenth-century English music for Christmas is very sweet sounding, very beautiful,” says Metcalfe. “The tunes are wonderful. We’re doing some of the more popular 15th-century carols. At the same time, we have music I guarantee no one in the audience has ever heard.” Blue Heron will do, for example, a five-voice Gloria by Leonel Power, “a bristly piece, incredibly dissonant and rhythmically complex. There’s a raw, peculiar energy about it.”
Boston is a hotbed of early music, but Metcalfe believes vocal performance especially is enjoying an international Golden Age.
“Medieval and Renaissance singing groups can take advantage of gains in scholarship, combined with the dramatic rise of technical ability in early-music singers,” he says. “We can make better music and keep alive a spirit of invention, rediscovery, curiosity and questioning.
“We should never be satisfied to just do things the way we’ve always done them.”
Metcalfe, who used to play with the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, holds this city’s early music scene in the highest regard, a scene that includes the Tudor Choir and Medieval Women’s Choir; each is presenting Christmas programs.
Tudor Choir: Friday (Blessed Sacrament Church, Seattle) and Dec. 13 (Northlake Unitarian Universalist Church, Kirkland), “My Dancing Day: Advent Carols and Motets,” and Dec. 28, “English Christmas: Traditional Carols for Christmas and New Year.” The latter features music by Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams (206-323-9415 or tudorchoir.org).
Medieval Women’s Choir: Dec. 21 (St. James Cathedral), “Christmas In the Cloister,” with music from three abbeys in Germany, France and Spain (206-264-4822 or medievalwomenschoir.org).
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org