Concert review: In Mulieribus

Portland vocal ensemble's veteran teamwork produces winning Byrd songs.

In Mulieribus

In Mulieribus


Teams that retain their players over several years are more likely to play better together. Witness the Amadeus String Quartet, a unit for 40 years, or in sports, Miami Heat/San Antonio Spurs. It is this, among other things, that makes In Mulieribus who they are: a constant in tuning, blend, and balance. The women think one another’s musical thoughts, hear their sisters’ voices almost before a musical utterance. They catch every wave together. In this case, familiarity breeds content.

On Sunday at southeast Portland’s St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, the premier women’s group, founded a decade ago by director Anna Song and former member Tuesday Rupp, offered a concert of music by English Renaissance composer William Byrd and two contemporaries: Peter (Petrus) Philips, and Richard Dering. This time around, we were also treated to guest director Kerry McCarthy, who is a published authority on Byrd. Her work with IM was, according to one member, collaborative, and joyous.

Byrd lived in the crucible of time when being an ardent Catholic, much less composing music for that Church, was risky at best. In a way, the musical Thomas More of his time, Byrd led a long life (1540-1623) which spanned, and mirrored musically, the emotional upheaval of England from the time of Henry the Eighth’s break with the Pope, past the death of Elizabeth I.  McCarthy’s publisher says it best in the overview of her recent book on Byrd (Oxford University Press): “(the author) takes on the uncomfortable paradoxes of the composer’s life as a devout and influential Catholic who spent much of his career in the service of the English Protestant establishment.”

In the flux of all this, he was able to compose countless masses, motets, and polyphonic madrigals, while serving the dual masters of his own spirituality, yet working as a court musician to Elizabeth I, and Director of Music at an Anglican Cathedral. In the meantime, he composed a great deal of “household music,” so-called by Dr. McCarthy, for use in private Catholic services in homes, at a time when public Catholic services were prohibited.

This music for private use was often sung by women and was a perfect fit for In Mulieribus in Sunday’s concert. Byrd’s legacy included some students who became great composers in their own right, including Dering and Philips.

The program mixed performances by the full ensemble with various combinations of duos and trios. One of the highlights was the duet team of Jo Ganske and Sue Hale. Accompanied by Hannah Brewer on the portative organ, those two alto voices were twins, whether by DNA or artistic design, and they worked beautifully in sync with one another. Another fine contribution in this vein was the solo by Catherine van der Salm, “O si quando videbo.” McCarthy contributed her own alto voice to Philips’s “O quam mira.” This is a well-schooled voice, captivatingly androgynous, a hybrid voice that can easily bridge the gap between alto and tenor. The voice of Hannah Penn shone brightly in “From Virgin’s womb” and in “Duo seraphim,” nicely partnered with Shaelyn Schneider.

Choosing the right venue is as important in the choral art as choosing the right singers and music. For this repertoire, St. Philip was an excellent choice. In Mulieribus chose to sing from three different locations in the sanctuary, each with its own acoustical properties: the back, very clear for the polyphony involved, and a ring time of about two seconds; the front, at least another second of ring time, but less supportive of polyphonic clarity for that reason; and the side, where there is a natural “shell,”  still another variation in what the audience heard, maybe two and a half seconds ring time, and a bit clearer. How refreshing to hear a choir use the whole space, to capitalize on the best placement within the space. Brava!

A welcome part of the program was a set of three pieces played on the organ by Hannah Brewer, two dances (a galliard and a volta) and finally the “Queen’s Alman,” interspersed among the choral settings. These pieces are published for, and presumably originally played, on the virginal. Since the very fast runs were occasionally murky, one wonders if the instrument of choice here could have been a virginal (unlikely here) or harpsichord, and if using one of those plucked-string instruments instead of the organ, with its longer tones, would have helped clarity.

I myself would have welcomed a nod to the secular beyond the keyboard. Byrd composed many brilliant madrigals. Why not include a few of those to take a break from the inexorable liturgical texts? Or were secular texts disallowed here?

Programmatically, the best was the last: Byrd’s iconic Mass for Three Voices, raised a fourth for this group’s accessibility. The women owned this piece. Polyphonic lines flowed with the consistency of warm syrup. Phrases between sections were absolutely cloned. The group sang with a wide dynamic palette, without any one singer being over-parted and no “voluptuous” vibrato that would pervert pitches. These qualities pervaded the concert from beginning to end. And this is a team that should not trade or sell any of its players at anytime in the near future.

If you are a Byrd watcher, you’ll be able to see and hear many singers and fans as Portland’s annual Byrd Festival’s 17th edition gets underway in August at St. Stephen’s Catholic church, led by founder Dean Applegate and Director of Cantores in Ecclesia, Blake Applegate. McCarthy will be a guest there as well, along with British musician Mark Williams and David Trendell.

Bruce Browne conducted the Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties, and many other choirs, and directed the Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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