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.

For many years, Artistic Director and co-founder of the Festival Dr. Richard Marlow, of Trinity College, Cambridge, guided the music-making. After his death in 2013, Mark Williams took over the helm, and has provided admirable leadership since that time. There have been many other heroes during this time, rightfully commemorated in the anniversary concert booklet distributed at the concert, prepared by Janine Applegate. The great musicologist Joseph Kerman (1924-2014) and the inspiring Byrd scholar David Trendell (1964-2014) both elevated the Festival. Dr. Kerry McCarthy, highly regarded Byrd scholar (who began with the Byrd Festival as a college student), and William Mahrt, Professor of Early Music at Stanford University, continue to provide scholarly enlightenment.

The bearers of the heavy water for these past two decades have been Dean Applegate, and now his son, Blake. The Applegates have built a Festival of gravitas, sumptuous beauty, and dedication to one of the real geniuses of the Elizabethan age.

What Mark Williams brings is genius quality musicianship, obvious in his mastery of the organ, and with the choir, combined with a humble and humorous approach (he seems at times almost oblivious of the audience — a good thing). His program was perfectly paced, devoid of verbal interludes, and performed in segments without applause, as requested in the program. His gestures are varied and fluid.

When he sits at the portativ organ, the audience sits at the edge of their seats. Byrd’s contemporary Thomas Morley said [a fantasia] is “when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth it and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shal seem best in his own conceit.” The humble Mr. Williams doth maketh each note dance and all hearts soar.

Mark Williams also performed on organ. Photo: Sarah Wright.


What Byrd brings to the table is unalloyed genius in craftsmanship, combined with sensitive treatment of texts, and richly varied approaches to his motets, masses, madrigals, and keyboard works. The high level of polyphony is a welcome antidote to the unrelenting block chords assaulting our senses from many contemporary choral pens. Byrd was a master of this polyphonic art. His phrases are perfectly balanced, cloned from part to part, and word accent is subtly wound into each of the phrases.

Byrd’s works presented in this concert stretched from the deliberately ritualistic rite of the Propers for Corpus Christi (1605), to a more pithy, but lovely paean for Queen Elizabeth I, asking for the Lord’s blessing on her life — not a bad idea for a composer like Byrd, who was always under some measure of angst, as a practicing Catholic in an Anglican monarchy. Famously, Elizabeth not only “allowed Byrd, a practicing Catholic, to compose masses to be sung in the foreign (Catholic) embassies of London, but paid him to write music for Anglican services” (program notes).

The repertoire also ranged in weight and texture from pieces like the Elizabethan dedication to the thicker, more elaborate eight-voice motet, Ad Dominum cum Tribularer, filled with cross relations and word painting. Here, Byrd is more long-winded. It’s a beautiful text, but composer Otto Olsson (teacher of the distinguished 20th century Swedish choral conductor Eric Ericson) says it better, and shorter [see Psalm 120 of Olsson].

To add clarity to the Ad Dominum, the choir might have uprooted itself slightly, separating into the three- or four-member groups of the dense eight-voice scoring. Where the hall did not aid in hearing each part, a bit of staging would have helped.

Why does it seem that proclaiming our iniquities seems to take longer than celebrating joy and happiness? Anyway, in Peccavi super numerum, another of Byrd’s legacy of motets, the Prayer of (Tribal patriarch) Menasseh enumerates ALL of his sins (“I have sinned above the number of the sand on the seashore…”) — and he was apparently a very bad boy.

This year’s edition of the Cantores choir is one of the tightest and most colorfully sonic we’ve heard. They know how (and have been taught how) to tune, to phrase, and to balance. This is due to their own professional (prowess) training, to Blake Applegate’s preparation, and to Mr. Williams’s able leadership. The minor drawbacks have almost solely to do with the acoustics of this hall: focus in the bass section is sometimes lost, especially in the low notes, and perhaps due to singers’ difficulty in hearing one another, there were a few minor issues in the solo passages, where tactus (phrase-opening accents) were lost among the soloists.

My wish for them is to return to Portland’s St. Stephens church, where the choir performed often between 2008 and 2015. It’s acoustically more revelatory of Byrd’s sinuous strands of polyphony, which can sometimes sound muddled in the bravura acoustic of St. Phillip Neri. Wherever they land, this is a choir to hear for all seasons.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties.

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