Until now, I have not been honored to review a concert by Cantores in Ecclesia, although I have attended many of their liturgies and concerts in years past. 2014 marks the 17th annual William Byrd Festival, founded by Cantores' Director Emeritus, Dean Applegate. It is one of the summer's annual events to which I, along with many others, look forward to. It is always an experience to be relished to hear this choir sing, especially in a liturgical setting, providing choral music for many Masses and other services in various venues around the city. Their activities, and especially the Byrd Festival that focuses upon the music of this great composer of the English 16th-17th centuries, are not an exercise in arcane or nostalgic (e.g. Latin Masses) museum-pieces but are vital, dynamic forces in musical expression and choral art.
Sunday night's final concert (August 24), one of the few in the Festival that carry a charge for a ticket, at St Stephen's Roman Catholic Parish in Southeast Portland, drew a full audience of listeners on a warm but pleasant evening. I attended the pre-concert talk by Dr. William Mahrt of Stanford University who lectured on "The Craft of Composition: Byrd versus Tallis." Unfortunately, the amplification was inadequate and extraneous noise from the narthex and other "clunkings" hampered my listening, and I found his talk more frustrating than instructive. However, I caught a few things that enlightened my interest and made the following concert all the more delicious.
Three pieces by Byrd - Emendemus in melius, Laudate Dominum, and Peccantem me quotidie, two from Byrd's Cantiones Sacrae 1575 - opened the evening's performance. Emendemus is Lenten in its mood but the mood changed drastically with a joyous Laudate, which is the brief Psalm 117 (116 in the Vulgate).
Interspersed with the choral works were two organ works, played by Mark Williams the conductor, Voluntary for My Lady Nevell, BK 61 and Fantasia, BK 61. The instrument used was a positiv or portativ organ made by local builder Richard Bond and associates, a small, compact one-manual organ with just the right colors for these works. The Fantasia contained many passages of 32nd notes, executed beautifully and swiftly by Williams. Listening to this kind of music is definitely an "acquired taste" to many, I suppose, although this reviewer thought it a good way to allow the choir to rest and to provide other than choral works. Without being too far-fetched, one could say it was like sherbet, or other palate-clearer, served between courses of a fabulous gourmet banquet!
Thomas Tallis' famous O nata lux ("O light born of light") and Suscipe quaeso, both from Cantiones Sacrae 1575, with the English O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit introduced the audience to "Master Tallis." After all, he was the teacher of William Byrd and it was only appropriate to have the mentor represented.
It might be well at this point to say something about what Cantiones Sacrae was. Copious notes by Kerry McCarthy in the beautifully wrought program fully explained this. The production had much to do with music publishing, royal monopolies and control of all sorts of desirable goods in the late 16th century. Even subterfuge – tampering with details of music to make figures come out even and a Huguenot French printer escaping persecution – played a role. Each composer - Tallis and Byrd - contributed 17 pieces each to the collection of "sacred songs." Unfortunately the book did not sell very well but was simply ahead of its time in some ways. "It captured a unique moment, two adventurous English composers taking the great polyphony of the European Renaissance and making it their own" according to McCarthy's notes.
After intermission, Tallis' works continued to be represented: In jejunio et fletu ("With fasting and weeping") and two settings of Salvator mundi ("Savior of the world"). The former is edgily chromatic and Dr. Mahrt called it "experimental" for its day.
The program concluded with Byrd's English Arise, O Lord, based on Psalm 44:23ff and an extended meditation on Psalm 51 (Miserere), Infelix ego ("Unhappy am I"). Some of this was in eight parts; the portrayal of Solus igitur Deus refugium meum ("Therefore God alone is my refuge") was particularly stunning. The final declamation of Miserere mei Deus ("Have mercy on me, O God") was triumphant. If I heard correctly Mahrt said this was in "old style" from Queen Mary's Roman Catholic reign and the piety in the text certainly does reflect that.
Overall the ensemble of the choir was quite good, save for a bit of over-singing in the tenor section. The soft passages were especially good and each work tapered off to perfection. Some in the choir often were not making good eye-contact with the conductor. As a singer myself, doing this difficult music, I probably would have had my eyes too much in the music as well. Any quirks, though, were more than offset by the obvious joy of this group as they sang together and provided this tremendous gift to the community. The joy was palpable and our long applause thanked the musicians profusely, along with the bouquet of flowers that Director Emeritus Dean Applegate presented.
Williams' versatility is amazing: widely-traveled, academically astute, a performer on organ and harpsichord, as well as an excellent conductor - all at the age of 35! It was fun to see that he was consultant for the music of the crime drama Endeavour on BBC. He augmented the choir with its own conductor, Blake Applegate, who was duly acknowledged at the conclusion of the concert, and with Dr. McCarthy, David Trendell, and Dr. Marht, all scholar/lecturers at the festival. The evening was truly a collaborative effort that provided the audience with much joy in hearing this great music done so very well. The memories of Richard Marlow, co-founder of the festival, Dr. Joseph Kerman, the father of modern Byrd scholarship, Richard Cuddihy, and the Rev. Dr. John Hughes were truly kept alive last Sunday evening!
Phillip Ayers sings with the Portland Bach Cantata Choir and for ten years sang with the Portland Symphonic Choir. From 2001-2007 he produced and hosted "Choral Classics" on All Classical radio. A retired Episcopal priest, he and his spouse are former church organists and choir directors and now enjoy "sitting in the pew" at church and concerts.