blake applegate

Cantores in Ecclesia review: Polar opposites

Choir's program of two very different 20th century masses produces different degrees of success


A pigtailed girl skips up the center aisle after getting a pre-concert hug from her parent. She clutches a musical score to her chest and her face is filled with gleeful anticipation of the music to come. She has no idea that the score, the Frank Martin Mass, which covers one-half of her tiny torso, is one of the most revered and defining choral works she could be singing. She sings for the pleasure music brings her life. She is a treble in Cantores in Ecclesia, the Portland choir that performed Monday, February 20, at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

James O’Donnell led Cantores in Ecclesia. Photo: Hyperion Records.

This was a program of polar opposites. The shivering white ice flow of Igor Stravinsky’s Mass of 1948 was set against the much warmer and highly coloristic woven tapestry of the Mass of 1923 by Frank Martin. In a wonderful coup by Cantores, the guest conductor, James O’Donnell, was on the podium – all the way from Westminster Abbey, London. O’Donnell is an icon at the Abbey, organist and choirmaster — in Hollywood-speak, choirmaster to the royals and ruling class. He demonstrated his grace and skill in this concert.

Martin and Stravinsky enjoyed similar life spans of over 80 years, and lived contemporaneously — Martin (a Swiss Huguenot by birth) mostly in the Netherlands, and Russian-born Stravinsky, a lifelong expat, in Russia, France, Switzerland, and America. But what different paths they took. Stravinsky: commercial, secular by comparison, and more famous by the time of the Mass, having already composed The Firebird and Symphony of Psalms, for example. Martin was the son of a pastor, insular, unconfident in his craftsmanship, but in his way, just as inventive and vibrant as Stravinsky. For example, another of Martin’s choral pieces, the Songs of Ariel, commissioned in 1953 for the Netherlands Chamber Choir, is a wonder of Shakespearean exposition: onomatopoeic articulations, harmonic shifts, and jolting musical ideas for his time.


William Byrd Festival: Fervid finale

Cantores in Ecclesia's closing concert creates a cohesive combination of words and music


“Which is more important? Words or music?”

Having recently seen Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio, in which the central theme is this very question, I have been pondering this point. As a choral conductor, my art is dealing with words and music. And so, unlike the inconclusive conclusion to that question in the Strauss opera, I have the definitive answer – at least for today.

William Byrd.

Words convey thoughts and ideas, to elicit response, to provoke emotional reaction. Choral music set to text, unless the text is your Toyota owner’s manual, is often set in a manner that complements or enhances the understanding of words.

Mark Williams led Cantores in Ecclesia at the William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Mark Williams also led Cantores in Ecclesia at last year’s William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

All theorizing on the above points is for naught, however, unless the performance itself is revelatory. Correct notes, careful tuning and the exacting entrances and releases are essential as part of an ideal artistic experience. This is what Cantores in Ecclesia provided in the final concert of Portland’s annual William Byrd Festival last Sunday. The settings of biblical texts they sang show how enmeshed Byrd and his English Renaissance colleagues were in the words, from the overall arching form and long phrases down to the smallest detail. Several structural factors, stylistic norms, contributed to the emotional expression.

The pews at northeast Portland’s beautiful St. Patrick’s Cathedral were filled with the loyal festival goers who braved the 102 degree heat in the window-cooled sanctuary. Had Festival Artistic Director Mark Williams known, he might have programmed Thomas Morley’s “Fire, Fire” just for comedy relief. We were treated instead to the glorious choral and organ works of Byrd and his English contemporaries and successors. The construction of the program was very intelligent, especially, in hindsight, given the draining effect of the temperature, with excellent balance offering wonderful range of emotional involvement.


William Byrd Festival review: They’ve done it all, but they’re not done yet

Summer Renaissance music institution reaches a milestone.


“We are all done,” announced Dr. William Mahrt from the stage at Portland’s St. Stephen’s church before the closing concert of this summer’s William Byrd Festival. The Stanford University scholar didn’t mean that the Festival’s 17 year run was concluding. But this year’s edition was a culmination, because with the end of this concert, the festival’s singers had, in fact, delivered themselves of the entire canon of the great English Renaissance composer’s sacred masses and motets. Yet as we’ll see, there will be more to come.

Mark Williams led Cantores in Ecclesia at the William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Mark Williams led Cantores in Ecclesia at the William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Our community is blessed to have such extravagant events occurring in our midst each summer. This event – some two weeks long – typically brings together highly respected conductors, musicologists and singers from near and far: Mark Williams, Director of Music and Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge; Kerry McCarthy, well-reputed early music scholar, known for her biography on Byrd, from right here in Portland; Jeremy Summerly, British conductor and musicologist, Director of Oxford Camerata and Royal Academy Consort; and Dr. Mahrt, highly respected scholar of Gregorian chant and sacred music of the Renaissance.

The talented singers are always well trained, and Sunday night’s closing choral concert was no exception. Festival Director Blake Applegate (who also directs and prepares the Portland jewel Cantores in Ecclesia, which serves as the festival’s choir) sang tenor, at times, low alto; Virginia Hancock, Kellogg Thorsell and Maggie Morris have sung with the Festival each year since its founding. Many other professional singers contribute greatly to the wealth of vocal talent.

The longest ovation of the evening was reserved for conductor and Artistic Director Williams, who also provided two virtuosic organ solos, and the two Applegates, father and son, Blake and Dean, the latter of whom founded the Festival in 1998. It’s clear that there is a large following for these events.


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