Sunday, August 24 marked the end of the 11th annual William Byrd Festival here in Portland. For this event Cantores in Ecclesia, under the direction of Richard Marlow of Trinity College, Cambridge, presented a concert consisting of selections from Byrd's Gradualia (1607), as well as the motet Ad Dominum cum tribularer. The concert took place at St. Stephen's Church in southeast Portland. I should note that I currently sing and have sung in the past with several members of Cantores in Ecclesia.
Beginning with music composed for Pentecost Sunday, Cantores in Ecclesia sang the Introit jubilantly, and throughout the evening Marlow and this talented group shaped each work with a deep understanding of how to bring out the appropriate emotion for each segment of this constantly shifting palette. Whether it was a tender invocation of the phrase O lux beatissima (O blessed light) or a thundering, perfectly tuned chord on reple cordis intima (fill the innermost recesses of the hearts), sounding like some immense organ with all the stops suddenly pulled, Cantores delivered a program that was powerful and full of meaning.
They sang purely, nearly absent any vibrato. This enhanced their excellent diction, a necessary quality in music of this type. The densely textured music was sometimes a cascade of syllables hastening one after the other, and the members of Cantores artfully avoiding tripping over each other textually. Initially the bass section seemed to stick out a bit, but through the course of the evening the balance smoothed out entirely.
The second part of the program was comprised of music for Christmas Day from the Gradualia. Organist Mark Williams performed a Pavan and Galliard and a Fantasia respectively toward the end of each half of the concert, forming a nice interjection before the choir returned to sing its final piece. (The opening concert of the festival featured Williams playing a number of Byrd's keyboard works.)
The concert closed with a much earlier work, the eight-part motet Ad Dominum cum tribularer. This was a very different piece from those selected from the Gradualia. Hearkening back to the pinnacle of the high Renaissance, this motet was a fantastically complicated web of polyphony that would come together briefly in block chords to illustrate a textual point and then race off again in all directions. The intensity of the whole evening seemed to build toward this highly emotive work, and Marlow and Cantores were especially brilliant during the closer.
Byrd was an amazing, prolific and inventive composer, and the different aspects of his music highlighted by this festival should prove delightful for anyone who loves early music. I look forward to attending next year.