anna song

In Mulieribus review: musical time travel

Portland vocal ensemble's Christmas concert brings ancient music to life


In medieval Europe, “Mulier taceat in ecclesia” (women must be quiet in church) was the order of the day, until for at least two more centuries. That didn’t stop the women of In Mulieribus, the Portland women’s group of seven voices directed by Anna Song, on Wednesday evening at the St. James Proto-Cathedral in Vancouver WA. Virtually none of the music they performed would have been sung by women when it was written. So the singers deserve extra credit for modeling the treble voices we would have heard 600 years ago, arrived at essentially by non-vibrato singing and very careful blending. Except for the inclusion of female voices, what we heard from In Mulieribus is about as close to going back in time as we can get. The concert is repeated in Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral on Friday, December 22.

These women showed how much musical mastery those early audiences were missing. At its core, a truly memorable concert is composed of two things: curation (choosing the right pieces) and animation — bringing them to life, preserving their sonic essence in the chosen concert space. In Mulieribus accomplished both. Each piece was a gleaming gem in its own way and taken together created a palpable arch form. Waves of overtones were generated in St. James. And these occur only when a choir is singing perfectly in a perfectly tuned, perfectly blended manner.

In Mulieribus performed Wednesday in Vancouver and sings the same program Friday in Portland. Photo: David Lloyd Imageworks.

The repertoire was adroitly grouped in two ways: by subject – Angels and Prophecies, Magi, Shepherds, The Birth; and by region — notably England, France and Italy, all of which shared, during this time, a Roman Catholic visage of time and place. Each disparate regional style was presented cunningly by Ms. Song and the women, who constantly avoid the quotidian with grace and forethought. The highly decorative “Gloria,” from the Tournai Mass of 14th century France, was crystalline in its clarity and balance. Thought to have been concocted by several different composers, the Tournai is considered one of the earliest Missa tota, the complete mass presenting all five parts of the Ordinary – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. (Guillaume Machaut’s Messe de Notra Dame, the first known complete setting by a single composer, will be performed in Seattle and Portland February 2-3 by Cappella Romana).

The two Italian pieces, Magi videntes Stellam (The Magi seeing the stars) by Agostino Agazzari (1578-1640) and Omens de Saba venient (All they coming from Saba) by Giovanni Asola (1532-1609) were ravishing. The latter, referring to the Ethiopian city of Saba, was especially poignant in its energetic celebration of the “bringing of the gifts” and showing praise. Perhaps the most advanced in its harmonies and fullness of texture, it approached the high Renaissance styles of the contemporaries Palestrina and Victoria.

Choosing concert repertoire can be very tricky, especially in this day of accessibility to such a wide variety of literature. No, wait. Shouldn’t that make it easier? Certainly it is easier to access, to retrieve the pieces. The British Museum can, one might imagine, dispatch a digital manuscript across the pond in a matter of minutes. It is the culling of works, picking those which are true to the period (some primary source) and right for the group, and possess historical integrity. That is the hallmark of Anna Song’s programming.


In Mulieribus preview: from medieval to madrigals

Women's vocal ensemble's tenth anniversary season continues with madrigals, new music — and men

Like so many of the best musical ideas, Portland’s finest female vocal ensemble got its start in a bar. Recently relocated to Portland from Chicago, Anna Song was unwinding with her new friends from the choir Cantores in Ecclesia after a 2006 rehearsal when another Portland classical singer, Tuesday Rupp, met up with them after a rehearsal with a different group. They got to chatting, discovered a shared love for early music, and a desire to sing more intimate ancient repertoire for women’s voices. “If you choose the songs,” Rupp, a veteran of the city’s classical scene, told Song, “I’ve got the singers.”

A few days later, several of the city’s top female singers sang together at Song’s house  and enjoyed it so much that they decided to do it again — and again. “This is really so fun, we sound pretty good, and we’re having a good time” Song remembers thinking. “Why don’t we put on a concert?”

Anna Song, center, leads In Mulieribus in concerts March 3 and 4.

They rented southeast Portland’s St. Philip Neri church for a solstice performance in December 2006. “I’ll take care of the logistics,” Rupp said, “and you take care of the music.” They needed one more thing: a name. A male friend suggested In Mulieribus for the all female ensemble, a Latin phrase meaning “among women.” Spreading the word via email in those pre-social media days, they were surprised when 150 people showed up. “This is crazy,” thought Song, accustomed to the rigid Chicago and East Coast classical music establishments. “It’s so easy!”

They certainly make it look that way. In the decade since that first informal concert, In Mulieribus has drawn ecstatic reviews and ardent applause from Portland listeners enraptured by their radiant voices and intrigued by the rarely performed repertoire they’ve sung several times per year for the past decade.

This weekend, Song leads In Mulieribus in tenth anniversary concerts that display both those resplendent voices and the group’s enthusiastic pursuit of ever-different sounds, including a first-ever venture into madrigals and a newly commissioned work by an Oregon composer.


In Mulieribus review: A decade of delicious dissonance

Vocal ensemble’s laudable tenth anniversary concert provides holiday spirit, over the top


There are many fine mixed choirs in the Northwest, but far fewer adult treble choirs and men’s choirs. In the category of exclusively non-mixed choirs, two in the Portland area stand out: the male group Male Ensemble Northwest, and the other, heard in their recent holiday concert, In Mulieribus.

This group of seven singers (director Anna Song, Kari Ferguson, Susan Hale, Arwen Myers, Jo Routh, Catherine van der Salm, and Ann Wetherell) is celebrating their tenth year. After beginning in modest circumstances, they have achieved an illustrious reputation during this last decade.

They’ve staked out their niche and stuck to it: singing early music (from c. 1150), seldom venturing past the 1800s, although more recently singing more modern works, including commissions. Many of the singers have been together for the duration. Co-founder Anna Song took complete charge when Tuesday Rupp moved to New York City; she’s returning for In Mulieribus’ tenth anniversary concert in May.

Last week’s concert exemplified their mission: the program offered choral music spanning some 650 years, some originally for boys, but all, of course, for trebles. And the task is not so easy.

In Mulieribus celebrated its tenth anniversary.

First, assemble all the right voices, attached to excellent ears, willing to compromise their solo voice for the good of the whole – check!

Next, research and choose just the proper literature, solos for some singers, catering to the impeccable musicianship, with thematic interest  — check!

Then, get the perfect venue: St. Mary’s or St. Elizabeth’s in Portland; St. James in Vancouver – check!

But here’s the real challenge. Monochromatic choral sound is, to a degree, inescapable for any non-mixed group. The literature we heard last night, at least in the first half, was all polished marble — beautiful, luminous, but monolithic, and much the same. Eight posts of gleaming marble in shades of white are a lot to take in. Nonetheless, Dr. Song managed even that challenge as well as anyone could.


In Mulieribus review: Hours well spent

Portland vocal ensemble's happy marriage of Renaissance music and visual art


“The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.” — W. H. Auden

Those audience members who came to Mt. Angel Abbey for In Mulieribus’s concert last Friday, March 4, who are primarily concert-goers probably anticipated that the musical experience would be enhanced by the visual art projected behind the singers. Those attending primarily to take in the visual art might have thought that the music would “accompany” the Mt. Angel Abbey book of hours collection (horae), through projected videography. For me, however, the manner of presentation allowed the arts to meld into one unifying and moving experience.

In Mulieribus used video projections of illuminated manuscripts in Horae.

In Mulieribus used video projections of illuminated manuscripts in Horae.

In “Horae: A Musical Book of Hours,” programmed brilliantly by IM artistic director Dr. Anna Song, the eight women, in solos, quartets and full ensemble, sang the audience through the eight sanctifying “hours” of Catholic spiritual practice. These women have as many formations as the Dallas Cowboys, and make use of each different lineup with satisfying results.


In Mulieribus review: Approaching perfection

Women's vocal ensemble gives pristine performances of medieval and Renaissance music


“Perfection is the child of time” – Joseph Hall

We don’t see it, we don’t hear it; most of us don’t know it, at least not intimately. But if Hall is right, then by taking time to plan, listen, experiment, change – rehearsal time in our art – we hone a sonic product toward perfection.

What we heard December 21 at Portland’s St. Philip Neri church was pretty darn close. The eight women of In Mulieribus have reached a certain pinnacle in a number of ways: chief among these is their very clear sensitivity and empathy with one another. If breathing together is a promoter of good health, then these singers must be among the most fit humans on the planet. Phrasing and articulation were particularly well cloned in this performance.

The program’s title, “The Tree of Jessie,” refers to the medieval iconography that “portrays the genealogy of Jesus, back to Jesse, the father of King David,” according to Song’s program notes. The idea of depicting Jesus as a direct descendant of the royal house of David (who descended from Abraham) fulfills Messianic prophecy set forth in the Old Testament, Isaiah 11:1 mentioning Jesse by name and “drawing” the image. “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (King James 2000).


Choral climaxes

In Mulieribus, Resonance Ensemble and PSU Chamber Choir embark on wide-ranging musical explorations

Anna Song led In Mulieribus's singers up the aisle to open the ensemble's May 5 concert.

Anna Song led In Mulieribus’s singers up the aisle to open the ensemble’s May 5 concert.

by Bruce Browne

 “The Spectacular Now” is the provocative title of an upcoming movie. It can also apply to the “now” of the time we are sitting in a concert hall. Last Sunday, it did exactly that for this listener.
I had no misgivings about the experience of hearing In Mulieribus on Sunday, May 5; I know many of the singers to be absolutely first rate, and this ensemble has sung together for a while. But I wondered: would it be too much of a good thing – for example, monochromatic, ancient music?
I was soon relieved of any concerns: the music, although drawn from a relatively narrow period of music, displayed a variety of differences in texture, style, color, and rhythmic activity.
The space, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, is ideal for this type of small group singing. The only deterrent there is the pew I was sitting in: hard as a rock, and unyielding. Not so the singers. They made stimulating use of the space, singing first from the rear, then moving in front, and often changing formations and numbers of singers. And, unlike my pew, they were plastic and malleable.
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