cantores in ecclesia

William Byrd Festival finale: sumptuous beauty

Despite a less-than-ideal acoustic, closing concert of its 20th anniversary season continues the Portland summer festival's tradition of excellence


“There is nothing in the structure of the universe that demands these exist,“ wrote Jeffrey Tucker in New Liturgical Movement. “They are products of crazy dreams, impossible goals, relentless determination…that … changes the way we think and live and worship.”

Tucker was talking about Portland‘s annual William Byrd Festival and the choir that anchors it, Cantores in Ecclesia. The thing is, by the time I get through one of these concerts, I’m half converted to Catholicism. You just can’t listen to this level of ethereal music, without letting some of the residual religiosity seep in. Umm – well, almost.

Mark Williams conducted Cantores in Ecclesia in the final concert of the 2017 William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

But regardless of your religious inclinations,  both institutions have attained a level of excellence and longevity worthy of veneration. This summer marked a major milestone. Sunday was the closing concert of the 20th anniversary of the William Byrd Festival, begun in 1998 by Dean Applegate and Cantores in Ecclesia.


Today seems a good time to introduce you to one of our newest correspondents, C.S. Eliot. When the movie Kedi: The Cats of Istanbul prowled into town (it’s landed at Cinema 21 after a couple of sold-out screenings at the Portland International Film Festival) we found ourselves looking for just the right sort of writer to respond to the film’s unusual subject matter, a writer with inside knowledge of the peculiarities of the feline world. And C.S. made a poetic plea to speak up.

Well, all right, it was a yowl. C.S., we regret to report, is an imperious sort, given to stark pronouncements and prone to making unseemly demands on the management. Thus, forthwith, C.S.’s first dispatch for us, ‘Kedi’ review: Turkish delight.

The streetwise cats of Istanbul.

To tell the truth, this partnership is a work in progress. We’re not sure C.S. understands the concept of objectivity at all. But C.S. makes no bones about his opinions (he prefers to leave the bones for the dogs), and C.S. will speak out. There’s no stopping him, really, although you can slow him down if you put out a bowl of tuna juice. Let’s stipulate that a good writer is not necessarily a saint.

In the case of Kedi, not only is C.S. an expert on the subject, he also has a talented collaborator, longtime ArtsWatch correspondent Maria Choban. She speaks Cat semi-fluently and is adept at translating the pith of C.S.’s opinions. We see their partnership as vital to our coverage of the next touring production of Cats to hit town (lyrics and original concept by C.S. Eliot’s distant relative T.S.), and to the Puss in Boots scene in Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. And if someone in town will please put up a production of the musical Archy & Mehitabel, C.S. likely will be our representative in the reviewer’s box. We’ve tried, but we just can’t seem to come up with a literate cockroach who’ll work for what we can pay.





Companhia Urbana de Dança at White Bird. Photo: Renato Mangolin

Companhia Urbana de Dança. White Bird brings the energetic Brazilian dance troupe to the Newmark Theatre for shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Born in the shanty towns and suburbs of Rio, the company blends hip-hop, urban, and contemporary dance into an Afro-Brazilian stew.


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 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.


William Byrd Festival review: To the Next Generation

Under new leadership, festival celebrates teacher and student.


Sunday night at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church marked the culmination of the William Byrd Festival in Portland, the 17th such annual offering. The theme, “Born to honor so great a teacher,” referred to the student/teacher relationship between two of England’s greatest Renaissance composer, Byrd and Thomas Tallis. Their professional lives had continued to merge, both being named Gentleman of the Royal Chapel by Queen Elizabeth I, and they became the early day Boosey & Hawkes (one of today’s biggest music publishers) when granted patent and printing rights to the church or royal chamber. Ten prolific years later, in 1585, Byrd wrote “Tallis is dead and music dies.” And yet, as we witnessed on Sunday and in the prior 17 years, because of the Byrd and Tallis legacies, ‘the music lives on.’

Cantores in Ecclesia performs at the William Byrd Festival.

Cantores in Ecclesia performed at the William Byrd Festival.

Newly appointed Artistic Director Mark Williams, not a new face to the Byrd festival, conducted music from those first choral publications of 1575. Williams, Director of Music and College Lecturer at Jesus College, Cambridge, is rocking out the contemporary organ scene around the world. We were treated to the combined efforts of the Festival Choir –- the artists of Cantores in Ecclesia, directed by Blake Applegate — and guest singers, including such luminaries as Stanford University musicologist William Mahrt, Byrd scholar Dr. Kerry McCarthy, and Kings College London lecturer David Trendell, all long time contributors to the Festival with their lectures and forums.

Under Williams’ direction, the choir had no trouble navigating the depths of Byrd’s and Tallis’ often dense polyphonic motets — unaccompanied songs that use multiple melodies sung simultaneously. An obvious trait of both composers is the spectacular engineering of the polyphonic components of each motet, dovetailing as they do, and bowing to the next entry, before initiating a new musical idea, often in rapid succession.

This excellent choir, populated by singers with perhaps several centuries of combined choral experience, was at its very best in the quiet parts, and in the delineation of the varied points of imitation. They were entirely responsive to Williams, drawing down cadences to a finer, smaller dynamic point, then rebuilding, to flatter the textual and phrasal implications of each motet. Each phrase in Renaissance choral music needs a destination, and point of departure; it is only the very best choirs that can illustrate that journey on a regular basis. It is inspiring to see and hear so many local – and visiting — luminaries of the choral world embedded in this important project.


Cantores in Ecclesia performs
at the William Byrd Festival.

This weekend’s relatively sparse classical music action mostly happens in Portland churches. The annual William Byrd Festival continues Saturday and Sunday at Holy Rosary Church with liturgical services and two masses by its great English Renaissance namesake performed by the fine Portland choir Cantores in Ecclesia.

Friday offers a rare summer glimpse of instrumental Baroque music at north Portland’s St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church, where the early music ensemble Musica Maestrale (comprising some of the Northwest’s historically informed specialists including Portland lutenist Hideki Yamaya and Seattle viola da gamba player Polly Gibson) performs Polish music by Renaissance and Baroque composers you’ve probably never heard or even heard of — Milwid, Dlugoraj, Cato — except possibly Silvius Leopold Weiss.

On Saturday at southeast Portland’s All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Baroque oboe specialist Robert Morgan (who also plays with Chicago modern instrument orchestras and commissions new works for the instrument) headlines the annual Northwest oboe seminar and closing concert, which also features other masters of the instrument, such as Oregon Bach Festival and Chamber Music Northwest veteran Alan Vogel.

Also on Friday, the Salem Chamber Orchestra introduces its new principal conductor, Nikolas Caoile, who’ll play piano in a chamber music concert at Villa Bacca Collina featuring two 20th century masterpieces: Aaron Copland’s Duo for Flute and Piano (with Sarah Tiedemann) and Debussy’s Violin Sonata (with Daniel Rouslin).


Blake Applegate leads Cantores in Ecclesia at the William Byrd Festival

Oregon boasts a scintillating lineup of classical and other music festivals — the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, Pickathon, the Northwest String Summit, Cathedral Park Jazz, Portland International Piano Festival, etc etc. As impressive as they are, however, they’re far from unique. Other American cities enjoy summer chamber music festivals, even Bach festivals, and everyone knows about Newport’s legendary jazz fest and the profusion of summer outdoor rock fests. Even our fascinating Time Based Arts festival is part of a circuit of similar fringe fests around the world.

But Oregonians can count on a pair of singular late-summer celebrations that are hard to find elsewhere. Nowhere else but in Portland will you find a festival so devoted to the works of a particular English Renaissance composer. And you’d be hard-pressed to encounter as thoughtful and diverse an exploration of American music as happens every summer in Eugene.


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