August 26, 2008

By James McQuillen
Special to the Oregonian

If we were to add a fourth to the canonical three Bs of classical music, here is a clear candidate for the honor: Cantores in Ecclesia has been making the case for William Byrd for 10 years in an annual festival dedicated to the music of England's greatest composer. The closing concert of this year's festival Sunday at St. Stephen's Church in Southeast Portland was especially persuasive, with a program of sublime late works.

(In the interest of full disclosure: I sang with Cantores for the festival's first few years, and I am listed among the patrons because I've lent visiting scholar William Mahrt my pickup.)

Why Byrd is not held in greater esteem is not much of a mystery. Devotees of classical music tend not to stray into pre-J.S. Bach territory; even to many seasoned ears, he's just one of those churchy guys, and they all sound the same. It hasn't helped that performances of 16th- and 17th-century music can be overly scrupulous, academically arid and piously prudent.

Much of the success of Sunday's concert owes to the direction of Richard Marlow --scholar, organist and founder of the mixed choir at Trinity College, Cambridge --who has led the choir in the festival since the beginning. Marlow's approach to performing these works involves perceptive musicality, taking cues from the texts, phrasing and harmonies to give them shape. He also addresses the music with obvious conviction and insists that the texts come across clearly, which they did in the remarkably clear yet resonant acoustic of St. Stephen's, the choir's home base since last year.

Each of the pieces from Byrd's 1607 "Gradualia," evenly divided on the program between music for Pentecost Sunday and for Christmas, took on its own character, with abundant details. "Factus est repente," which tells of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, was electric, alternating between full-throated excitement to hushed awe. "Non vos relinquam orphanos" ("I will not leave you orphans") opened as poignantly as anything in Schubert, then blossomed into resolute rejoicing. A precipitous decrescendo in the "Amen" of the Introit for Christmas had the piety of a genuflection.

For contrast, the finale was an eight-part motet written nearly 50 years before the rest of the program, in the attenuated, wall-of-sound style typical of early Byrd. The contrast with the rest of the program underscored his striking stylistic evolution, leading to a combination of concision and expressive power comparable to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

August 11, 2008

By James McQuillen
Special to the Oregonian

Since 1998, the choir Cantores in Ecclesia has celebrated the music of William Byrd, the greatest of English composers, in an August festival of Masses, recitals and lectures by prominent Byrd scholars. This year's festival opened Sunday evening at St. Stephen's Church in Southeast Portland with an "illustrated recital" combining a set of a dozen keyboard pieces with a lecture introducing Byrd's life and work.
The unusual format was a departure for the festival, but a brilliant one, as it turned out: While a recital or lecture alone might have seemed uncomfortably academic for a general audience, the combination of the two was fascinating. (Full disclosure: I sang with Cantores for the festival's first few years, and I am listed among the patrons because I've lent visiting scholar William Mahrt my pickup truck.)

The lecturer was Kerry McCarthy, a longtime Cantores member and current professor of musicology at Duke University whose "Liturgy and Contemplation in Byrd's Gradualia" was published last year. As she has in previous festival lectures and program notes, she introduced her subject engagingly, with infectious enthusiasm, an eye for the odd telling detail and a gift for conveying plentiful information while remaining entirely accessible to a non-specialist audience. (She also offered a few musical examples in an exceptionally fine, velvety alto voice.)

Byrd was renowned for his prowess "with fingers and with pen," McCarthy said, a master of compositional craft as well as a player who reveled in the possibilities of his instruments; Glenn Gould called him "the patron saint of keyboard writing." She traced his story and his style through the tumultuous second half of the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth, as he developed ever greater concision, inventiveness and expressive power.

The player was Mark Williams, a gifted young English keyboardist and principal conductor of the English Chamber Opera. Alternating between harpsichord (a reproduction of a Flemish instrument from Byrd's time) and positive organ (a portable organ dating back to medieval times), he brought effortless grace and a keen sense of articulation to pieces ranging from early elaborations on plainchant to stately dances and wild, free-form pieces. Among the highlights were "The Bells," a virtuosic, improvised-sounding exercise over a simple two-note ground (mimicking the tolling of bells) and a late, austere masterpiece built on a simple rising and falling six-note scale.

The festival continues Friday at St. Stephen's with the first of four Masses, for the Feast of the Assumption. There will also be two more lectures, including another "illustrated recital" with music for voices and viols; an organ recital by Williams followed by Choral Evensong at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral; and a closing choral concert featuring music from Byrd's 1607 "Gradualia.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Cantores in Ecclesia’s finale includes “Gradualia” selections

By James McQuillen
Special to the Oregonian

Every August, the Portland choir Cantores in Ecclesia gathers under the direction of esteemed organist and conductor Richard Marlow, of Cambridge University’s Trinity College, to celebrate the music of the great English Renaissance composer William Byrd.

With little fanfare during its nine years, the Byrd Festival has become one of the most consistently excellent events on the city’s musical calendar, and the closing concert of this year’s festival Sunday night was among the finest of its performance to date.

For the second year in a row, the program was drawn from Byrd’s “Gradualia,” a collection of pieces for holidays and other celebrations of the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar (last year’s program commemorated the 400th anniversary of the “Gradualia’s” publication). A few of the pieces were longer-form motets of the sort featured in past years of the festival, but many were terse settings of just a line or two of text, often followed by the simple flourish of an “Alleluia.”

As always, Marlow’s approach avoided the sterile pieties of many interpreters of this music: His tempos were flexible, and he made much of dramatic dynamic contrasts. Even in the relatively austere short pieces on the program, the music had a natural ebb and flow as textures thickened and harmonies instensified, and settings of standard language such as “Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto” (“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”) became thrilling moments. More than most conductors, Marlow insists on clear expression of the Latin texts in these works, and during much of Sunday’s concert, you could have taken dictation from the choir.

The choir’s membership has varied thought the years (disclosure: I was a member some years ago), and this year’s group was exceptionally strong, particularly in the male voices. Both tenors and basses contributed a beautifully blended, firm tone without overwhelming the sopranos and altos; the overall sound was rich and sonorous, with a low center of gravity.

This year marked the festival’s return to St. Patrick’s Church in Northwest Portland, where Cantores once was the resident choir. Despite the rumbling of trucks up and down the Interstate 405 off-ramp a few yards away, it was a gorgeous-sounding, satisfying homecoming.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Cantores in Ecclesia sings the English composer’s “Gradualia” on Sunday

By David Stabler
The Oregonian

When a good choir sings the music of William Byrd, time expands, in much the same way that his notes can fill church spaces with a profusion of overlapping lines.

On Sunday, Cantores in Ecclesia, the excellent Portland Catholic choir, gave gorgeous readings of Byrd’s sacred music, filling St. Mary’s Cathedral with quiet, concentrated reverence. Conducted by Richard Marlow of Trinity College, Cambridge University, the concert concluded two weeks of concerts, lectures and services in the eighth annual William Byrd Festival.

Byrd (1540-1623) wrote some of the world’s most beautiful underground music. Considered the father of British music, he was a persecuted Catholic who stubbornly continued to compose secret religious services at a time when celebrating Mass was tantamount to high treason. How he got away with it is a mystery, but what probably helped was a combination of shrewdness, friends in high places and his unparalleled musical ability.

That ability was on display Sunday with performances from Byrd’s “Gradualia,” a collection of music written for major events in the Catholic church year (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost), with selections chiefly from Candlemas and the Feast of Corpus Christi. The “Gradualia,” finished in the same year as “King Lear,” is restrained, even for Byrd, but especially compared with the lively splendors of his Italian contemporaries such as Palestrina.

Joy, in the “Gradualia,” emerges from the gradual intensification of sound, not an outburst. Sadness spreads like mist. With that limited context, though, the upbeat ending to “Unam petii a Domino” (“One thing I have asked of the Lord”) could only be described as rambunctious. By contrast, within the muted sadness of “Plorans plorabit” (Weeping, let it weep”), melodic leaps took on special poignance.

Using his hands only, no baton, Marlow drew clear and convincing expression from the singers. Melodic lines grew or subsided in constant motion. Marlow frequently motioned for diminished sound by drawing this thumb and index finger together. Consonants were muted, especially at the ends of phrases, as if they might have disturbed the hushed effect. And yet, the singers responded with balance and agility, creating aural images that lingered in St. Mary’s reverberant interior.

The basses, who had prominent lines in “Oculi omnium” (The eyes of all”), grounded the sound nicely, while the sopranos sang with bell-like clarity. A feeling of suppressed joy pervaded the music.

One of the liveliest selections, “Cibavit eos” (“He fed them”), presented a profusion of quick entries and more-or-less sudden shifts of loud and soft. The famous “Ave verum corpus” (Hail, true body”) offered harmonies that shifted unexpectedly, drawing to a serene close.

For contrast, boy-wonder Mark Williams, who became assistant sub-organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London at the age of 21 (a wonderful job title), played two selections on the organ from Byrd’s keyboard works. The second, “My Lady Nevell’s Ground,” featured rapid scales that grew from a trickle to a torrent, over a repeating left hand. Terrific playing, and a terrific concert.

August 25, 2000

By Nora Beck
Special to the Oregonian

Listening to Renaissance choral music provides the same pleasure as watching an Oregon stream: Like a stream, vocal lines blend beautifully together into a seamless whole and reflect different shades of color.

In the music of William Byrd (1540-1623), an English composer who studied with Thomas Tallis and worked in the fabled Chapel Royal, we are at the pinnacle of Renaissance choral writing. Despite the turbulent religious climate under the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and James I, Byrd remained true to his Roman Catholic beliefs and was a prolific composer, writing Masses, motets (sacred songs), consort and keyboard music. He was the first Englishman to compose madrigals, and he described his vocal music as “framed to the life of the words.”

While New York hosts its Mostly Mozart festival each summer, Portland can boast a burgeoning Basically Byrd festival, organized by Dean Applegate, director of Cantores in Ecclesia, the choir of St. Patrick’s Church in Northwest Portland.

The festival will feature selections from Byrd’s Cantiones Sacrae on 1589 and three Latin Masses sung by Cantores in Ecclesia, under the leadership of guest conductor Richard Marlow, director of music at Trinity College in Cambridge, England. In addition, there will be lectures on Byrd’s Cantiones Sacrae and an organ recital of the composer’s sacred keyboard pieces, played by Mark Williams, Organ scholar at Trinity.

The festival welcomes the return of Marlow, a renowned interpreter of Byrd’s sacred music. Marlow studied organ at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he worked with Thurston Dart, writing a doctoral dissertation of the 17th-century keyboard composer Giles Farnaby. He has recorded several CDs with the Trinity Choir and has several more in the works, including the sacred music of Mendelssohn, Duruflé and Elgar.

Marlow says he relishes working with Cantores in Ecclesia, which he finds “so alert and responsive” and “always a pleasure to conduct.” Of St. Patrick’s Church, he notes, “Unlike many North American buildings, (it) presents no problems acoustically.” The maestro appreciates the church’s “warmth and presence” without “excessive resonance.”

Byrd’s music presents some delicious conundrums, Marlow says. For instance, like most early music, there are “ever-present difficulties of singing in tune and in time.” The challenge, he added, is of “balancing voices and ensemble.”

“One of the more difficult problems facing choirs today is how to cope with Byrd’s countertenor parts,” he says. “Nowadays, this wide-ranging voice part, with its (for us) awkwardly placed range spanning the tenor and alto voices, has largely disappeared.” Marlow emphasizes that “it’s quite a problem discovering ways of presenting this part effectively throughout the range.”

The culmination of the weeklong festivities is a concert in St. Patrick’s Church of Byrd’s music from the Cantiones Sacrae at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 3, with a pre-concert lecture by Stanford music professor William Mahrt at 7 p.m.

The Cantiones Sacrae is a collection of motets. Originating from the medieval period, motets are curious vocal pieces that contain two or more melodies and texts sung at the same time. In the Renaissance, composers transformed them into homogeneous pieces that accompany Latin texts.

Motets often have political or ceremonial subtexts, providing commentaries of the day’s events. Like contemporary rap music, motets often include “samples” from previously composed music imbedded in its polyphony.

The choir will perform nine Byrd motets, all deeply introspective, masterful works. The motets vary in style from the somber “Tristitia et anxietas” (Sorrowful and Anxiety”) to the colorful “Vigilate” (“Keep Watch”), a sticky wicket for conductors, though a favorite of music critics for its complex handling of text.

After attending Portland’s ambitious William Byrd festival, one might be tempted to paraphrase Cervantes in “Don Quixote”: “A Byrd in Portland is worth two anywhere else.”

Tuesday, September 7, 1999

By David Stabler
The Oregonian

“Since singing is so good a thing, I wish all men learn to singe,” quoth William Byrd, the great composer of Tudor England. Would that all singers sounded like Cantores in Ecclesia, the choir of St. Patrick’s Church in Northwest Portland.

A week of sacred choral music and lectures on the great Byrd culminated in a concert of music from the magnificent “Cantiones Sacrae” (“Sacred Songs”) Sunday evening in St. Mary’s Cathedral. The “Cantiones” are a collection of 34 motets that both Byrd and his teacher, Thomas Tallis, composed in 1575 in homage to Queen Elizabeth I. The choir, normally led by Dean Applegate, sang under the direction of Richard Marlow, the distinguished director of music at Trinity College, Cambridge.

This was a concert of pure vocal beauty. The music of the young, exuberant Byrd and the wise, aging Tallis is about sonority-the holding of a chord, the gentle swell of a note on an important word such as “Hearken” in the phrase “Hearken, Lord, and have mercy, for we have sinned against you.” It’s about the constant intermingling of voices, beginning usually with the sopranos, then the altos, tenors and finally, the basses, imitating, contrasting, dropping out, re-entering.

Musically, the “Cantiones Sacrae” operate under strict rules. Voice parts move according to long-accepted practices. Among the 13 motets (sacred songs) performed Sunday, Byrd’s “Libera me, Domine” featured the melody turned upside down. Another motet had the four voice parts singing in four tempos simultaneously.

The ear cannot hear these complexities but can only revel in the beauty of the sound.
An exceptionally refined choir is required to do this music justice, and Cantores in Ecclesia approaches the ideal. The sound was balanced and true. Phrases extended to their normal lengths without sounding pushed. Expression was subtle, and Marlow kept the dynamics within a limited range from half-loud to half-hushed.

The altos, tenors and basses had the right focus to their tone, but the sopranos sounded diffuse and less intense. Marlow did nothing exceptional in terms of conducting, but the results still came across.
With such exposed entrances, there’s nowhere to hide in this music, and pitch occasionally wandered off-base. But those instances were minor. The real challenge was singing softly, and Cantores had the confidence to carry it off. One magical transition occurred in the phrase “et cuiusvis manus pugnet contra me” (“and let anyone’s hand fight against me”) in Byrd’s “Libera me, Domine.” The texture smoothed to wafer-thinness in the altos before swelling again.

Faced with almost two hours of this music, the challenge for listeners was to remain alert to the unfolding subtleties of each composer. But nothing was subtle about the delightful, chasing lines of Byrd’s “Attolite portas” (Lift up your gates”), with the top voices piercing the texture like rays of light. The choir ended with a superbly controlled performance of Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus”.

After only two years, Applegate’s William Byrd Festival has become a valuable addition to Portland.