Byrd Ensemble review: corona of sound

Seattle vocal ensemble bathes Portland audience in clear, clean choral singing

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

When a choral tone bath is washing over me, I smile broadly, sometimes even giggle. Can’t help it. It’s a visceral reaction to a corona of sound. It envelops the audience, draws us in.

I smiled a lot Sunday afternoon, October 28 at Portland’s St. Stephens Catholic Church. The Byrd Ensemble, using just 10 singers, poured a program of motets that was clear and balanced in every way. The Seattle-based choir’s sound is clear, clean, never manufactured, without a wayward wobble in the pitch. The singers collectively exploit a brighter part of the color palette, enabling perfect intonation and balance.

Seattle’s Byrd Ensemble sang Renaissance and contemporary music in Portland.

This is clearly conductor Markdavin Obenza’s sound ideal. The sound is not an accident. It is cultivated. Several of these artists, including Mr. Obenza, had their start in the Northwest Boy Choir, and that, much like the English boychoirs in cathedrals over the years, is formative in their listening and the sound production they bring us.

Not to say they are trying to sing “like” a boy choir. This is an adult sound with a boy choir temperament. When excellent singers sing with their ears, sing into the mini acoustic among their colleagues, something magical can happen. A macro acoustic like St. Stephens is the perfect venue for a small group like this. And so, at the beginning tones of William Byrd’s Ne Irascaris Domine, I nearly giggled. At the end of the motet, the audience gave this opening piece a 30-40 second ovation.

Programming was well conceived, contrasting four Renaissance motets by Byrd, Tallis and Allegri, with two contemporary motets from living composers – Arvo Pärt, and Gabriel Jackson.

Jackson is a highly respected contemporary British composer. The short motet we heard, To Morning, was selected for inclusion in the 2011 Jubilee Choirbook for the Queen , the first such British sacred compilation in 500 years. It was precious, simply rendered and well programmed before the epic Gaude Gloriosa of Tallis.

Using solos, trios, quartets, Tallis’s motet offers the opportunity for contrasts in dynamics, textures and mood but, unfortunately, some of that subtlety was missing. I also wonder whether grouping the small ensembles together, voices in the same mini acoustic, would have made the almost 18-minute piece even more interesting.

The William Byrd and Thomas Tallis works fit the concert theme: Musical Politics: Motets of Influence. As many Portland Byrd Festival frequent fliers know, during the political tensions in England in the later 16th century, Byrd and Tallis, staunch Catholics, were “inclined” toward obeisance to a new Protestant style – clear words, less polyphony.

Polyphony is not a feature of Italian Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere mei. It is essentially chant expanded to chords – a perfect fit for the tight sonic delivery of the Byrd Ensemble. This is why when one voice popped out it was noticeable, as in a few moments in the balcony choir of Miserere. But the myriad moments of perfection in that piece made up for it.

In that work, Orrin Doyle’s solo cantor role from the side “stage” was natural and pure… a clear, stable annunciation preceded each of the choir stanzas which then led to the balcony quartet. Here is where the charm, mystery, inspirational and dramatic elements merged with politics. So revered by the Church was the composition, the score was not allowed to be distributed or copied. It was cloistered for hundreds of years, allegedly under the protection of the Swiss Guard in the Vatican Archives. No kidding; Dan Brown could have another best selling with this tale. The piece in its modern day version is a stunner if you have the right soprano for the high-c. The Byrd Ensemble had that soprano, Ruth Schauble.

Contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Woman with the Alabaster Box was sung with sensitivity and precision. Dissonances, polychords, and non-chord tones (on 5th and tonic) were surgically sterile (essential in Pärt) but phrasing around the Gospel text was warm and dramatic. The choir captured every nuance.

Mr. Obenza‘s choices of tempo, balance and phrasing were beyond cavil. He fulfills the correct role for the conductor in concert – only speaking from the podium to introduce an encore, never interrupting the flow of the music to share witticisms or to let us know how we ought to feel. Program notes can provide much of this valuable information. Offering attributed information is more desirable than making arguable statements such as [the Miserere Mei] “is easily the most famous vocal work of the Renaissance” or “Byrd’s greatest piece, Tribue Domine….”There is such a wealth of scholarly research these days; some of the foremost Byrd scholars are on the West Coast.

Weather, baseball and scant publicity may have kept some people home, but the appreciative audience filled the church with applause after every piece, enveloping the ensemble in return for its bathing us in those grin-producing coronas of sound. Don’t miss this Seattle-based group’s next visit to the Portland area: March 3, 2019.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer.

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