Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Willam Byrd Festival concludes with masterful "sacred concert"

Conductor Mark Williams
Guest review by Phillip Ayers

One of the "Rites of Summer" in Portland is the annual William Byrd Festival, held every August. This is the eighteenth year of the festival that was founded by Dean Applegate, a Portland choral musician and conductor-emeritus of Cantores in Ecclesia, and Richard Marlow, of Trinity College, Cambridge, England. Sadly, Marlow died a few years ago, but Applegate, succeeded by his son Blake, is still very much in evidence at the festival, happily taking tickets and presenting flowers to the conductor of this always-glorious final concert. Also integral to the festival in past years was the late David Trendell, who died suddenly last autumn. The whole festival was dedicated to him, and he can be remembered for his many lectures as well as his participation in the chorus at the final concert last year.

As in recent years, this final "Sacred Concert" of the seventeen-day festival, was conducted by Mark Williams, of Jesus College, Cambridge, who also regaled the audience with organ compositions by William Byrd, performed on a portativ organ. Williams is phenomenal: at 36, he has worked and studied at Truro Cathedral, Trinity College Cambridge (under Marlow), St. Paul's Cathedral in London and St. Paul's Cathedral School. His experiences and lengthy list of accolades and discography include being music consultant for the BBC series, "Endeavour."

The theme of this year's festival was William Byrd and his predecessors. As in former years Professor William Mahrt presented a short lecture beforehand which this reviewer caught only a part of; and due to a not-very-sophisticated sound system, found difficult to hear well. Mahrt emphasized some salient points in the evening's music, and brought out the uniqueness of the final part of the program, a 20-minute-long motet by William Mundy, "the longest pre-Reformation motet

As expected, much of the music was by master-hero William Byrd (c. 1540-1623): Lady Mass for the Christmas Season, Tribulationes civitatum ("We have heard the tribulations which the cities have suffered"), Christus resurgens ("Christ, rising from the dead, no longer dies," for Easter), and organ compositions "Pavan & Galliard Jig" and "All in a Garden Green". Added to these were pieces by John Taverner (c. 1490-1545)Dum transisset sabbatum ("When the Sabbath was past"), Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) Candidi facti sunt ("His Nazarites were made radiant") and the William Mundy (c. 1529-1591) monumental and lengthy Vox Patris caelestis ("The voice of the heavenly Father"), that climaxed the evening's music.

This is rich fare on the musical gourmet dinner table. For some, this mostly polyphonic a cappella choral music is an acquired taste; for others it comes quite naturally, especially if one attends the weekly Latin masses at St. Stephen's and other ecclesiastical venues, at which this music is nearly always performed by Cantores in Ecclesia. But for the one-time attendee at this final concert (this reviewer regrettably missed other concerts and liturgies this year), this music is naturally and organically real, not just a period-piece for those who enjoy this sort of thing. It is a singularly excellent contribution to the wider cultural and musical scene in Portland and in Oregon, and we have the Applegate family and all the others who contribute to the festival's planning, financial support, and sustenance to thank for providing this banquet for us.

By and large, this music sings and plays itself. But Mark Williams has a way of "sculpting" the sound from the choir, making certain that phrases are accurately sung and that the various interweaving parts "fit" well. The way in which Williams uses his hands and arms to conduct is well worth watching closely. Rehearsal times no doubt are relatively brief in the festival and much of the preparation of the choir are in the expert hands of Blake Applegate and the regular singers. The chorus is augmented by other professional singers, but it can well be imagined that when Williams arrives each year he finds a well-prepared ensemble at his disposal. Then he can concentrate on nuances and the kind of polishing that makes this 15th and 16th century choral music so pleasurable.

In the "Lady Mass," one of many composed for underground masses by Catholics in England in the tumultuous 16th century, Byrd's writing, especially word-plays (e.g., on et exultatione or "exultation") in the introit and Lingua mea calamus scribae velociter scribentis ("My tongue is the pen of a scribe writing swiftly," from Psalm 44) were well executed. The triumphant Beata viscera Mariae Virginis ("Blessed is the womb of the Virgin Mary") was a highlight, as the Communio at the Mass's end, with a 13th century poem of anonymous origin added to it, Gaude Maria Virgo: cunctas baereses sola intermisti ("Rejoice, Virgin Mary: you alone put an end to all heresies"). Now if some reformer surreptitiously got hold of this text, there would be hell to pay!

This reviewer particularly enjoyed hearing both male and female cantors at various times and in various pieces throughout the concert. The women's voices were especially tender in the Tallis piece. Here and there, some parts protruded overly much, especially in the tenor section and seemed to temporarily leave the ensemble, but they quickly returned.

The organ pieces were excellently played by Williams and, sitting forward as this reviewer was, his facial expressions were evidence that he is very much "with" the music. In more than one instance, demisemiquavers (32nd notes) were expertly wrought by nimble fingers! [This reviewer hopes this is correct; he didn't have a score to consult!]

Of course, the climax to the evening, after a nice break in the cool, but smoky air outside (from the raging forest fires in Washington and Oregon blowing into our fair city), was the William Mundy motet. It is 20 minutes in length, and falls into nine distinct parts, mostly sung without breaks. Composed when in his 20s, Mundy set a paraphrase of Song of Songs, notably the most sensuous portion of Scripture that made it into the Canon. Rather than extolling sexual love between a man and a woman, William Forrest (c. 1515-1580), a poet and musician in Tudor London, attempts to correlate the sensuous original text with exaltations of Our Lady. Thus, in the English translation, one of the results of Forrest's work emerges: "You are all beautiful, my love, daughter of Anne most beloved to me [God], most holy Virgin Mary, and there is, from the moment of your conception or ever, no flaw in you." The eighth section is called "eccentric" by the scholar Kerry McCarthy, for its "lineup of four treble parts and two low bass parts." The effect was stunning, eccentric or not! Unlike John Baldwin, a somewhat jaded professional scribe who copied out Vox Patris, this reviewer would not utter "laus Deo" ("Praise be to God!") in the sense that this long work was over and done, but in the sense that this music, heard by him for the first time, will stick in his memory for a long, long time.

And Laus Deo to Cantores in Ecclesia, Mark Williams, and many others, for their sterling contribution via this concert and the whole festival. Williams remarked at the end of the evening that, with the performance of two works by Byrd (understood to be Tribulationes and Christus resurgens), the entire corpus of Byrd's choral music has now been performed in the festival's 17-year history, a landmark to be duly noted and savored! An apt encore, emotionally introduced by Williams as another memento of David Trendell's influence, was offered, Byrd's Justorum Animae (Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-3), an antiphon for All Saints' Day. [Thanks to Paul Klemme, bass singer in the choir, for sharing the title with me].

1 comment:

Cecilia Nguyen said...

Thank you for the very kind review, Mr. Ayers. I sing in the choir and just wanted to say that the two Byrd pieces that we had not sung before were the Lady Mass and Christus Resurgens.