In today’s classical music world, the phrase “chamber music” refers to instrumental ensembles — string quartets, piano trios and other reduced versions of an orchestra. But the first chamber music was written for voice, according to Scott Metcalfe, the founding director of the Boston-based early-music vocal ensemble Blue Heron. This was in Europe during the 15th century, when “singers were by far the most learned and best-trained musicians,” he notes, and the continent’s star composer was Johannes Ockeghem. Metcalfe calls the Flemish master “one of the two greatest composers of all time.” The other? Bach.
Audiences will have a chance to judge that claim for themselves when Blue Heron present a concert of Ockeghem’s works at St. Michael’s College in Colchester on Monday night, and at Rutland’s Grace Congregational Church on Tuesday night. The performance at St. Mike’s, free and open to the public, will help inaugurate a new Humanities Center that history professor George Dameron is launching. Though the center has no designated space yet, Dameron says he envisions it hosting international scholars and interdisciplinary conferences on the model of Dartmouth College’s Leslie Center for the Humanities.
And, Dameron hopes, it will absorb the college’s Humanities Program Concert Series, of which the Blue Heron concert is part. The series has hosted at least one community-student concert a year for the last decade with the organizational help of Shelburne pianist Paul Orgel (who also orchestrates the University of Vermont English Department’s similar Music and Literature Concert Series). Blue Heron was chosen partly to give the students in Dameron’s current class on ancient and medieval civilizations a revealing window into the era.
For many of the students, the concert will be their first live classical experience, Dameron guesses. And, though they’ve studied the songs’ sacred and secular texts in class, the program will be a challenging introduction. Contrary to the general expectation, early music — especially Renaissance polyphony, as it’s called — isn’t simpler than its later developments. “The structure of a modern sonata or symphony is very apparent, but with polyphony it becomes trickier,” notes the Harvard-trained Dameron.
Metcalfe elaborates: “The wonderful thing about Renaissance polyphony is that all parts contribute a melody. There are no secondary parts, no hierarchy, as in first and second violin parts. All melodies are speaking to each other, and all are saying something compelling at the same time. The challenge of listening is amazing. It’s different every time you hear it because your brain can’t possibly take it all in at once.”
Among those most likely to be up to the challenge on Monday night are Metcalfe’s own parents, Bill and Elizabeth Metcalfe, aka Burlington’s first family of early music. Elizabeth has long been the region’s harpsichord doyenne; Bill has conducted Burlington’s early-music community chorus, Oriana Singers, since 1981.
Scott Metcalfe, 49, says his own path wasn’t as fated as it might appear. Though trained as a violinist, the Burlington High School graduate studied biology at Brown University. It was only during his post-college performance life that his musical interests started on a “trajectory backwards” to a time “before violin had been invented.”
Blue Heron are the fourth group Metcalfe has had a hand in starting. Early musicians are entrepreneurs by necessity, he jokes, because “classical music is on the fringe of culture, and early music is on the fringe of the fringe.”
In the competitive early-music hub that is Boston, however, Blue Heron are standouts that have won the praise of New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, among others. If anyone can turn Ockeghem into a “household name,” as Metcalfe says the composer deserves, it’s the Burlington native’s chamber-music group.
Blue Heron perform “Divine Songs” on Monday, March 25, at 7:30 p.m. at the McCarthy Arts Center, St. Michael’s College, Colchester. Free. smcvt.edu/events 
And on Tuesday, March 26, at 7:30 p.m at Grace Congregational Church, 8 Court Street, in Rutland. Donations. gracechurchvt.org 
The print version of this article was headlined "Early-Music Vocalists Blue Heron Land in Vermont for Renaissance- Inspired Concerts."