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.

The concert was preceded by a brief lecture by Dr. William Mahrt, whose specialty is a perfect fit for this music. He is a man of erudition and not incidentally, humor, sprinkled throughout his delivery. Unfortunately, and for the second year running, the sound system combined with the acoustics of the hall did not enable Dr. Mahrt’s delivery. St. Stephens is a perfect acoustic for singing, but exactly the opposite for the spoken word. One had only to look at audience members, who were benignly disengaged during the lecture, as they simply couldn’t connect with the muffled text. So please, next year, let’s hope for either a new sound system, or the presentation in a different room. Mahrt is too good to muffle.

The music was carefully programmed by Williams, and managed equally well from the podium. In a general way, the evolution of choral music in England, from John Taverner to Byrd was present and palpable. Specifically, the little known “Lady Mass” of Byrd was a beauty. Phrases often began with a subdued pianissimo (very soft), allowing for development of greater dynamics as the piece progressed. We heard excellent tuning throughout.

Mark Williams conducted Cantores in Ecclesia in the festival's closing concert. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Mark Williams conducting Cantores in Ecclesia in the festival’s closing concert. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Over the past few decades, performance practice in choral and instrumental music has become an important issue: audiences at a Baroque orchestra concert will expect to hear “period instruments” appropriate for that music (that is to say instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as gambas instead of celli, and sackbuts instead of trombones.) This is well known by the cognoscenti of period music. But there also exists the possibility, and indeed the necessity, of the same “period” treatment for voices, not using different instruments, but using instruments differently, such as the use of less vibrato and greater attention to emphasis made by word accent and the rise and fall of phrases. This period effect was truly “there” Sunday night.

A few minor liabilities were a false start in one of the motets, and the audible loss of some of the melismas in the miasma of acoustical reverberation in St. Stephens. Nevertheless, this performance was clean, clear, and overall a lovely testament to the positive effects of St. Stephens, and the excellent direction and singing.

Mark Williams is an added attraction times two: his rendering of Byrd’s works, “Pavane and Galliard Jig,” and “All in a garden green” on the portative organ were the ne plus ultra of that genre. His fingering is superhuman; sixteenth and 32nd notes come alive with dexterity and clarity. As these are dances, they were played in strict rhythm when dancers were afoot. Tonight, however, Mr. Williams used the freer concert style producing a fluidity, a whimsy, that enchanted the audience.

Song of Songs

The latter part of the concert presented two motets of Byrd, one by Tallis, and finally, the lengthy motet, “Vox patris caelestis” by William Mundy, a contemporary of Byrd. With edgy cross-relations and buttery smooth entrances of each subject, the Byrd “Tribulationes civitatum” was a delight. It is somber plea to God to help a city in its affliction.

The Easter motet “Christ rising from the dead” (“Christus resurgens”), also by Byrd, began in a lively tempo, as befits the more joyful text. In a way, given the Church’s acoustics, it would have been even clearer if the alti and bassi could have matched the brightness of the sopranos and tenors. This is not easy, as the altos are of course singing a part meant for boys and men. Occasionally we lost some of the lower end on the bass part.

Thomas Tallis was a direct predecessor of Byrd, and in part, a model for that composer. The motet “Candidi facti sunt” showed Tallis’ qualities of composition well, as the piquant cross-relations throughout made for a harmonic bite at each juncture. The use of cross relations in the harmony of that time was in high vogue, particularly in England. This effect happens when one polyphonic line contains, for example, an f-sharp and in another line within a beat or so there is an f-natural. To the listener there is a sort of “clang” — an eye-opener. It was quite popular at the time.

Mark Williams also played keyboard in the concert. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Mark Williams also played keyboard in the concert. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Our final piece of the evening was a long one. The “Vox Patris” clocks in at a windy twenty minutes. Perhaps some of the singers were tired, for there were some false entrances, even a wrong note, to be heard here, but not enough to interrupt a good focus of tempo. The changing modal inflections – occurring within the phrases, never quite settling, creating a restlessness – are like hallmarks of this style when they occur. There was a good deal of unrelieved polyphony. This text paraphrased the “Song of Songs,” and perhaps Mundy was trying to say it all, over a space of time which, according to Dr. Mahrt, became the longest “pre-Reformation choral piece written.”

With the festival having reached a milestone in performing the music of its namesake, Williams plans over the next two years to visit Byrd’s legacy. In 2016, the Festival begins to branch out to the composers who followed him in England, perhaps such as Tomkins and Weelkes, then in 2017, the neighbors in France and elsewhere who were contemporaneous with Byrd – a fascinating idea. Perhaps also we will hear more of the great catalogue of madrigals, dance music, secular songs and instrumental works of the great Master. So the Byrd Festival is not “all done” but goes forward, clothed in some new garments.

Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne led the Portland Symphonic Choir and choral programs at Portland State University for many years. 

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