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.

Louder singing, though, brought a heavier, sometimes bass-dominated texture. Placed in quartets, the singers delivered a homogeneous sound, but quartet placement can bring liabilities as well as assets. Singing in quartets with one voice to each part (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), rather than grouping all the singers on a part in the same section, can complement the blend and balance in a choir — but can also invite discrepancies in intonation, since there is absent a “sleeve of sound” for each section. Perhaps invited by this formation, a barely perceptible infighting for the center of the pitch was occasionally evident. Combined with louder dynamics, amid the naturally amplified acoustics of St. Stephen’s, they sometimes produced a pesante, darker sound when all voices sang together, as opposed to the sound, say, of the trebles and tenors singing by themselves — somewhat like the “oscuro” versus the “chiaro” parts of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, or one of the more heavily anointed paintings of Byrd’s near contemporary, Caravaggio.

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio, c1602, National Gallery of Ireland.

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio, c1602, National Gallery of Ireland.

The program was carefully and cleverly arranged, using a total of six motets each by Byrd and Tallis. Williams showed consideration to audience and singers by breaking the vocal flow of the program with two organ pieces, allowing the singers to rest, and treating the ears to a diversity of sound. Choral highlights in the first half included the redoubtable “O Nata Lux” (Oh, Light of Light), surely one of the best known motets of Tallis, and Byrd’s “Laudate Dominum” (Praise the Lord), a more sprightly, faster motet, with felicitous contrapuntal lines blooming and decaying. Also, Tallis’s “Suscipe quaeso” (Receive I beseech), was a wonderful, forward-looking piece with excitable stretti (speeded up passages) at each major cadence point. This, and several other of Byrd’s and Tallis’ motets were strewn with acerbic cross-relations  — not angry aunts, but the composer’s purposeful use of, for example, notes a half-step apart occurring in two different lines at exactly, or nearly, the same time.

The second half featured Tallis’s “In jejunio et fletu” (While fasting and weeping), a very low pitched motet, offering a sense of word painting, particularly in “give over … to destruction,” and “the priests wept, saying: Spare your people.” Byrd’s “Arise O Lord,” another full anthem from a Chapel Royal manuscript, displayed the composer’s imagination and creativity further through its stark mood changes, including sudden shifts from polyphonic to homophonic passages, and bristling modal inflections. Yes, Byrd was also summing up those before him (even back to the great early Renaissance composer Josquin Des Prez), but what a retrospective!

It is a special treat to hear genius at work. Williams’ organ playing was full of fanatical fingering as he danced through the two Byrd

keyboard works. If choral directing is his work, then playing the organ is his playground. He treats it like a treasured toy, entertaining us in the extreme. He is a true virtuoso, and I yearned for just one more offering. Williams, too, is a very expressive conductor. Phrasing and cues are effortless in his left hand. Ambidexterity and multi-tasking are necessities among conductors, and this one has them in spades.

Mark Williams led the 2014 Byrd Festival: Photo: Sarah Wright.

Mark Williams led the 2014 Byrd Festival: Photo: Sarah Wright.

The evening came to a close, as does our summer. A new academic year invites student and teacher to come together once again. Composers Byrd and Tallis, scholars Mahrt and McCarthy, directors Williams and his late predecessor Richard Marlow, Applegate pere et fils (Blake’s father Dean preceded him as festival director) — the lessons are passed down the generations. As “bred up to the music under Thomas Tallis” was Byrd, we all were as well, by others. It is a good thing to be a teacher who remembers (once again) that we were/are, all students. And the music lives on.

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led the Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties, and Portland State University’s renowned choral programs, and has conducted choirs around the world.

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