Preview: Quire Cleveland at Cathedral of St. John on April 13

On Wednesday April 13, Quire Cleveland will present “Lobet den Herrn: German Music for Quire” as part of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist’s Helen D. Schubert Concert Series. We spoke to guest conductor Scott Metcalfe, who will be making his debut with Quire at this concert, by telephone.

Mike Telin: Many people in Cleveland know you as a violinist, especially through your performances with Les Délices, but you also have an impressive resumé as a conductor.

Scott Metcalfe: I actually do about half and half in fact. Although conducting came to me much later, because I started playing the violin in third or fourth grade. I certainly wasn’t conducting then. I did a tiny bit toward the end of high school, and then some in college, but I really got started in my later twenties. I had a group for a number of years here in Boston called the Cambridge Bach Ensemble, and that was my first venture into working with professional singers. I also conducted an amateur Renaissance Choir for about a dozen years, and that was actually my entre into Renaissance vocal music, which is what I spend so much of my time on now. That led to Blue Heron, the professional vocal ensemble that I run now.

MT: How large is the ensemble?

SM: Blue Heron has always operated as a group that hired the number of singers that were necessary for the program at hand, rather then having a fixed personnel for which you would plan concerts. We do have a fair amount of stability in the group, but it’s more of a pool of people, and the size does vary greatly. We do a lot of one-on-a-part music, which for centuries has pretty much been the norm for polyphonic music, both sacred and secular. The group can get as large as a dozen singers, and that would be for something like the Victoria Requiem, the six part one that we just performed. For that we used two on a part, plus dulcian.

MT: It sounds like a very interesting group. For the concert with Quire Cleveland, you will be present an all-German program at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist; can you talk about some of the highlights?

SM: It’s a tremendously rich program, that Ross Duffin, Quire Cleveland’s artistic director, planned. It is a very serious program, in the sense that German polyphony is sober; it even takes its joy very seriously [chuckling]. The program is entirely Lutheran, and when people hear that nowadays, they think, Oh that sounds like no fun, but in fact is it incredibly joyful music. We are ending with the J.S. Bach, Lobet den Herrn (Ps. 117), which is extremely happy; it really is a toe tapper of a piece. And yet when I say it is sober and serious, it’s that it is in that wonderfully crafted four-part counterpart, as all of Bach is. Bach represents the end and pinnacle of two hundred years of Lutheran tradition. And he was very aware of his place in this long tradition back through his family.

We are doing a few pieces by Bachs from the generation before J.S., Johann Michael Bach, and Johann Christoph Bach. We will go back all the way to Johann Hermann Schein, Samuel Scheidt, and Heinrich Schütz. We are doing one piece by each of them, and that is an entire century before J.S Bach. There is also a piece by Johann Walther, who collaborated with Martin Luther on the reforming of the liturgy.

Now you asked about highlights, and J.S. Bach, for me, is always a highlight, but the J.C. Bach, Fürchte dich nicht, is one of my personal favorites. It’s a super expressive piece, with some real surprises up its sleeve. When you start, it appears to be a four-part motet, but once you are into the piece, suddenly a soprano enters with a choral melody on top of everything. It is quite stunning.

MT: It does sound like a beautiful program, and it does sound fun

SM: Well with that, I think it is a human tendency to put things into boxes; it’s either happy or sad, and you can’t be serious and have a lot of fun. Luther is himself kind of a forbidding figure historically. But on the other hand, he was a rich and complicated human being who clearly enjoyed life and loved music. He loved Josquin, a fantastic Catholic composer.

MT: Have you worked with Quire Cleveland before?

SM: I met them for the first time in February when I was here for the Les Délices concert. I do know some of them, and of course I have know Ross Duffin and Bev Simmons for years. But this is my first time working with the group, and I am really looking forward to it.

MT: One question I have wanted to ask you for a while is how did you get from being a biology major in undergraduate school to being a performance practice expert?

SM: Well [laughing] it isn’t quite as simple as it seems of course. Although I was a biology major at Brown, course distribution requirements were fairly light, so I was able to take a broad range of classes. I took a lot of history and medieval studies, but what does not show up on my transcript was the amount of music that I did there as well. There were a lot of good musicians around and I had a fantastic violin teacher and the orchestra was great, and I played a lot of chamber music. Also I was headed down a musical path growing up: my parents were involved in early music as early as the 1960’s. So I grew up with the University of Vermont Baroque Ensemble rehearsing downstairs. My dad was also a collector of LP’s and he had a lot of early music, although he had very broad tastes in music, as do I. But, back to biology, I was working in the lab, as well as doing fieldwork, and I published a paper right after college. But it was clear to me that music was running through my head all the time, and that it was calling me to pursue it, so I gave it a try, and in the end I never looked back.