by BRUCE BROWNE
There are many fine mixed choirs in the Northwest, but far fewer adult treble choirs and men’s choirs. In the category of exclusively non-mixed choirs, two in the Portland area stand out: the male group Male Ensemble Northwest, and the other, heard in their recent holiday concert, In Mulieribus.
This group of seven singers (director Anna Song, Kari Ferguson, Susan Hale, Arwen Myers, Jo Routh, Catherine van der Salm, and Ann Wetherell) is celebrating their tenth year. After beginning in modest circumstances, they have achieved an illustrious reputation during this last decade.
They’ve staked out their niche and stuck to it: singing early music (from c. 1150), seldom venturing past the 1800s, although more recently singing more modern works, including commissions. Many of the singers have been together for the duration. Co-founder Anna Song took complete charge when Tuesday Rupp moved to New York City; she’s returning for In Mulieribus’ tenth anniversary concert in May.
Last week’s concert exemplified their mission: the program offered choral music spanning some 650 years, some originally for boys, but all, of course, for trebles. And the task is not so easy.
First, assemble all the right voices, attached to excellent ears, willing to compromise their solo voice for the good of the whole – check!
Next, research and choose just the proper literature, solos for some singers, catering to the impeccable musicianship, with thematic interest — check!
Then, get the perfect venue: St. Mary’s or St. Elizabeth’s in Portland; St. James in Vancouver – check!
But here’s the real challenge. Monochromatic choral sound is, to a degree, inescapable for any non-mixed group. The literature we heard last night, at least in the first half, was all polished marble — beautiful, luminous, but monolithic, and much the same. Eight posts of gleaming marble in shades of white are a lot to take in. Nonetheless, Dr. Song managed even that challenge as well as anyone could.
Director Song was clever, inventive in ameliorating the built-in characteristic of medieval stasis: she mixed things up by showcasing the whole group in different vignettes, as it were: a trio, now a quartet, now a sextet. Combined with that, we heard a double choir effect, and later, three correspondent voices facing each other at angles. So the potentially monochromatic first half was avoided for the most part.
Many were the virtues of their singing: intonation always spot on; blend and balance summa cum laude. Production values, that is, visual involvement and commitment to text, always present. Phrasing, imaginative and cloned in all voices.
A hallmark of the In Mulieribus sound, perhaps more a philosophy of interpretation, is their treatment of dissonance. These women do not back off when it comes to the melodic intervals we now consider dissonant: seconds, the modal fourths, the sevenths. They approach the potential offender and embrace it full on.
Music from the mid- to late medieval period, roughly 900-1400, was loaded with incidental dissonance, generally in passing, as phrase beginnings and cadence points were expected to be open intervals (octave, fifth sometimes fourth). The parameters for use of these intervals – these rules of species counterpoint — are very specific (enough to keep an undergrad class yawning for a semester); but they have held listeners in their seats for centuries. Glorious music this, before the more regulated – yet beautiful – renaissance emphasis on major and minor modes and the curtailment on incidental dissonance. And Anna Song and company are wise and aware to place dissonance in a prominent position.
If not for the delicious dissonance, in fact, some of the pieces would have been difficult to sit through. This music hovers in the upper registers, lacking the added interest of a fundamental bass part, not added until the age of Josquin in the 15th century.
The entire first half of the program came from the polyphonic conductus (metrical Latin song of ceremonial character for one, two, or three voices) collection from the Notre Dame Manuscripts, now preserved in the Herzog August Bibliothek as Wolfenbuttel 1099 W2. The equipoise of the “Verbum Bonim Et Suave” (Let us ever sound the “Ave”), four phrases, four beats to each of six stanzas was offset by the florid and more through composed “Salvatoris Hodie” (Today the Savior). The latter’s rhythmic interest is indicative of the French style in the mid-twelfth century.
Personal faves were the two English carols “Edi Beo Thu Hevene Quene” (Blessed be Thou Queen of Heaven (13th C.), and “There is no rose” (15th C.) in Olde English. These two, back to back, bore further evidence of Dr. Song’s enlightened scholarship, as we could hear the tangible evolution of this one form over two centuries.
Another standout was a much later motet by Agostino Agazzari, “Magi Videntes Stellam” (The wise men saw the stars), the latest in the evening’s published chronology, from a composer whose dates were 1578-1640. This was perfectly executed sonically and visually, with the three wise women (Jo Routh, Catherine van der Salm, and Arwen Myers) opposing one another, representational of the three magi.
A management note: it was perfectly appropriate to include in the program a plea for the audience NOT to applaud between numbers; it should just have been repeated orally at the outset, and perhaps the clappers might have withheld the (well-deserved) applause, allowing the program to proceed more organically. This could save wear and tear on audience and singers.
Even some of the singers appeared to be vocally tired towards the end of the concert. Very often in a program, less is more. My vote for the excision of one piece would have been the Palestrina “Alma Redemptoris Mater” (Hail redemptive Mother). It doesn’t stand up to the preceding Josquin motet of the same text, and could well have been omitted.
The last two pieces were wonderful, the penultimate being a kind of signature piece for In Mulieribus. “Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen” (Lo, how a rose e’er blooming) was full of nuance and gentle enunciation. It would have been a perfect conclusion, no encore necessary.
Portland choir director Bruce Browne directed Portland Symphonic Choir and choral music programs at Portland State University for many years and was founder and director of Choral Cross-Ties, a professional choral group in Portland.
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