Friday , July 19 2024
The Met Cloisters
Photo credit: Oren Hope

Concert Review: Clarion Choir and Orchestra – Music of Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410–1497) at the Met Cloisters

The Clarion Choir has become my favorite NYC-area vocal ensemble not only because of their great skill but because of the vast range of repertoire they plumb and make their own. Under the leadership of Steven Fox the choir has recently performed Handel, Rachmaninoff, and brand-new music too. This week they reached back to the 15th century. Climbing to the top of Manhattan, they performed, in the resonant hall of the Met Cloisters, the music – much, much music – of Johannes Ockeghem (or Okeghem), the great Franco-Flemish composer of the 1400s.

Following a four-hour marathon of Ockeghem’s music on Wednesday, the Clarion singers and four instrumentalists returned to the Cloisters for a Thursday night concert which I attended, featuring representative music of this most mathematical of early composers.

Variations

Ockeghem marks the pinnacle of the Renaissance style. The concert included one of his most celebrated works, the Missa prolationum. It consists of the standard movements of a mass – Kyrie, Gloria, etc. – but they are “mensuration” or “prolation” canons, meaning the voice singing the main melody is accompanied, together and in sequence, with other voices singing versions of that melody at different speeds. That’s just one of the methods this composer used to create unique sound worlds and, presumably, satisfy his own interest in, well, puzzle-solving.

The Clarion Choir at Carnegie Hall, 5 May 2023.
Steven Fox conducts the Clarion Choir at Carnegie Hall, May 5, 2023. Photo credit: Fadi Kheir

Throughout the concert the musicians took different formations. Some sections featured soloists and duets. Standout soloists included two different tenors. Another was the soprano featured in the Sanctus from another mass, the Missa cuiusvis toni, which Ockeghem wrote so that it could be sung in any mode. The choir chose the Phrygian, and it sounded glorious.

The same fine soprano was featured in a piece for just three voices. (Ockeghem wrote quite a few of these.) And the Benedictus of the Missa prolationum was performed by three pairs of singers – soprano and tenor, alto and bass, the a different soprano and tenor.

The Many Sides of Johannes Ockeghem

The motet “Alma redemptoris mater” was an example of Ockeghem’s more straightforward composing style, with a simpler structure and a steady rhythm, but still with sublime harmonies. The secular chanson “Quant de vous seul” was insistently rhythmic too.

Four instrumentalists, one cornetto and three sackbuts, accompanied the singers on some of the music. Their tones fit remarkably smoothly with the voices, sounding almost human. The Credo of the Missa prolationum was assigned to the instruments alone. With each part in one “voice” only, it was especially easy to appreciate the complex beauty of Ockeghem’s writing.

The Met Cloisters: An Ideal Venue

The choir as a whole sounded gloriously full and rich in the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters. I’ve heard concerts here before, but it felt as if the space was made for the size and sound of the Clarion Choir.

Josquin des Prez considered Ockeghem a great master. The concert included the piece Josquin wrote as a tribute to his forebear. In the words of John H. Lienhard, “When the Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem died, Josquin wrote a heart-rending lament on his death. He has singers reading the roll of great composers who learned from Ockeghem and Josquin’s name heads the list. If he wasn’t Ockeghem’s actual student, he was certainly his spiritual inheritor.”

So in a sense we’re all Ockeghem’s spiritual inheritors. Steven Fox pointed out that around 1480 the Renaissance style gave way and “music changed.” But Ockeghem’s music remains a signal achievement of human artistic spirit. Otherwise why would superb musicians like the members of the Clarion Choir devote hours and hours to performing it, and why would listeners assemble to hear and appreciate it, after more than five centuries?

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to our Music section, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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