An Unusual Combination: 16th Century English and Spanish Music Sung by “Blue Heron” and “Ensemble Plus Ultra”

This afternoon I attended a most unusual concert at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Two early music vocal groups, one based in Boston, the other English, came together to present a program of 16th century music from England and Spain.   Blue Heron, the Boston-based group started in 1999 by its music director, Scott Metcalfe, has a wide-ranging repertory focused on renaissance polyphony, somewhat in the style of the Tallis Scholars.  Ensemble Plus Ultra, the English group founded by its music director, Michael Noone, focuses primarily on music from the Spanish renaissance.

The program was evenly divided between the two groups and their music directors with an interesting symmetry, in that the program opened and concluded with works calling upon the joint resources of the two ensembles.  Scott Metcalfe conducted the first half, which consisted of two relatively lengthy works by relatively unknown early 16th century English composers, John Browne and Richard Pygott.  Browne's "O Maria salvatoris mater" for 8 vocal parts received a flowing reading with a big, rich sound from an ensemble drawn from both vocal groups.  Pygott's "Salve Regina" for 5 voices was performed by Blue Heron with great concentration over its 22-minute span.  The relatively brief Salve Regina text familiar from so many motet settings is here extended into a lengthy meditative song in multiple parts, and the finely-tuned choir managed to maintain the dramatic tension throughout the long work.

After the intermission came the Spanish half of the program, focused mainly on music by Tomas Luis de Victoria.  Michael Noone's conducting style seemed to me not as smooth as Metcalfe's, with somewhat more emphasis on rhythmic demarcation, which worked very well for the music he was presenting.  Ensemble Plus Ultra has fewer members than Blue Heron, and they reduced their numbers even further for a portion of the program.  They began at their full strength with Victoria's "Ave Maria" for 8 voices and "Ave regina cealorum" for 8 voices, and showed how exactly one voice to a part could project a big, vibrant sound in the resonant acoustic of St. Ignatius.  Then a rotating group of six members of the Ensemble sang three motets setting verses from the Song of Songs of Solomon, "Vidi speciosam," "Vadam et circuibo civitatem," and "Nigra sum sed formosa."  Interestingly, Noone sat in the pews while the groups of six from his ensemble sang these smaller-scale motets without a conductor.  These performances seemed to me every bit as precise and tightly-knit in terms of ensemble as the conducted numbers.

Then the two groups united under Noone's direction for the stirring finale, reflecting the enlarged ensemble from the Browne work but going it even one step further, as the full complement of both ensembles joined for Victoria's twelve-part Vespers psalm, "Laetatus sum" and Francisco Guerrero's "Duo Seraphim," also in 12 parts, with antiphonal solos from the sopranos.  The Guerrero ended with an impressive chord of such richness and sustained power that I was reminded of the big moments from Thomas Tallis's 40-voice "Spem in Alium," which I've heard on many recordings but have yet to hear live in the proper manner (with the 40 singers forming a circle around the audience).  Some day….

I had attended this concert at the invitation of the president of the board of Blue Heron, who had come across my earlier blog postings about early music concerts I had attended and wanted me to hear his group.  I'm glad he asked, because I found it a most rewarding experience.  Blue Heron will be back in New York City for a program of 16th century Spanish lovesongs on June 10, and they have two interesting programs that they will be performing in Cambridge, Mass., in December and March.  (Those interested should check their website,, for information about concerts and their recordings.)  Ensemble Plus Ultra is on an American tour, coinciding with the release by DG Arkiv of their 10-disc recording of sacred music by Victoria, focused on pieces he published while living and working in Spain after his long sojourn as student and musician in Rome.   Both groups were worth hearing, and both are definitely worth hearing again….!

And, as to St. Ignatius – this small Episcopal Church hosts an extensive concert series, focusing mainly on sacred music but ultimately covering a wide range of repertory with an interesting mixture of groups.  I've heard some concerts here in the past and I believe it one of the better venues in which to hear early music.  The church space is large enough to provide the resonance necessary for hearing sacred music of the renaissance and baroque periods, but small enough to preserve a feeling of intimacy and for the sound to be well enough focused to avoid the blurring effect one can hear in large churches, such as St. Mary the Virgin, located near Times Square, where the Columbia University Miller Theatre Early Music series presents many of its concerts.  Fine as both of these ensembles sounded in St. Ignatius, I would love to hear what they would do with the more resonant acoustic of St. Mary's.  But I'm glad I heard them first in St. Ignatius.   Details of the St. Ignatius concert series can be found on their website,

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