In Mulieribus review: Hours well spent

Portland vocal ensemble's happy marriage of Renaissance music and visual art

By BRUCE BROWNE

“The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.” — W. H. Auden

Those audience members who came to Mt. Angel Abbey for In Mulieribus’s concert last Friday, March 4, who are primarily concert-goers probably anticipated that the musical experience would be enhanced by the visual art projected behind the singers. Those attending primarily to take in the visual art might have thought that the music would “accompany” the Mt. Angel Abbey book of hours collection (horae), through projected videography. For me, however, the manner of presentation allowed the arts to meld into one unifying and moving experience.

In Mulieribus used video projections of illuminated manuscripts in Horae.

In Mulieribus used video projections of illuminated manuscripts in Horae.

In “Horae: A Musical Book of Hours,” programmed brilliantly by IM artistic director Dr. Anna Song, the eight women, in solos, quartets and full ensemble, sang the audience through the eight sanctifying “hours” of Catholic spiritual practice. These women have as many formations as the Dallas Cowboys, and make use of each different lineup with satisfying results.

While the stunning book of hours illuminations seemed to move off of the pages and toward the audience thanks to the artistry of videographer Sumi Wu, the Portland-based vocal octet was not “illuminated” save for the book lights on their music. With their faces half- lit, hovering above the strategically placed cross-hatched scarfs, the collective eye was forced to turn to the large screen in their background. Their voices seemed to blossom from below the Horae visuals.

Audience members who wished to have a close encounter with the art of the book of hours were pleased. These jewels of the medieval period, most specifically 1400-1520s, were made to last. Quite costly and often custom designed for one family, they were meant to survive into future generations.

in mulieribus book of hoursEntwined in these historic treasures are several arts: parchment making (best quality being the prized vellum – calf–skin), the extraordinary calligraphy (perhaps utilizing the gall nut/iron gall ink), and mesmerizingly vibrant and detailed illuminations—painted/penned art that often included, among other vibrant colors, gold and silver. Books are often identifiable to the studio or house of specific illumination artists (whose self portraits occasionally snuck onto the face of the supernumeraries). Sometimes there are gold clasps for closure. Some of the books, the miniatures, perched gracefully on the palm of the owner’s hand. Precious.

A typical book of hours might contain The Hours of the Virgin, church calendar (with special saint feast days in red letters—etymology alert), prayers to the virgin, Gospels readings, well known Psalms. Most pieces chosen for this concert were pointed toward the Virgin Mary and provide, as Anna Song wrote in the program, “a glimpse into a day in the life of a medieval noblewoman praying the Hours of the Virgin using her own personal book of hours.”

The Canonical hours, equally well ordered, comprise nine successive times during which the poor monks had to arise (often from deep slumber) to pray: Matins (3 AM!); Lauds (Dawn,); Prime (or 6 AM); Terce (9 AM) ; Sext (Noon); None (3 PM); Vespers (6 PM); and Compline (9 PM). Many choral musicians are most familiar with the latter (Vespers and Compline), as those are observed with regularity in many Episcopal and Catholic churches, often grounded in musical offerings. This tradition was also carried on in other denominations: the Lutheran composer Buxtehude composed many cantatas for Vespers.

And so, music, illumination, calligraphy and videography were entwined in this concert. The enlargement and close-ups of the borders, faces, flora and fauna were stunning. Sumi Wu even zoomed in on the “wallpaper” on selected pages to illustrate the pin-point attention to every detail. The videographer employed cut-out, duplication and layering to help us observe the detailed illumination images, but when the video pop-outs were animated it was sometimes distracting and “boring by repetition” as in the kaleidoscopic final offering.

To play devil’s advocate (to myself) though, the imagery of flowers, surrounding the Virgin, the virtual bloom and decay as the flowers faded out, was symbolically picturesque and mirrored exquisitely by the singing. While singers can, and should, find bloom and decay in phrases, and even individual notes, many choirs struggle with this concept. Not these singers!

The concert programming strayed from perfection in the “more than was needed” category: the well-known Coventry Carol “Lully, Lullay,” sung with all of its verses, was just too much of a good thing. The “lazy ear…craving the familiar” experienced a loss of momentum here.

But this concert boasted many more virtues than distractions, aurally and visually. The women sing with a combined color that is just not audible in any other choir in the Northwest. This purity comes through the careful nurturing of vowel color, the spin of the tone (some would say vibrato) and an almost inbred concern for a vocal line adorned with impeccable word accent and, as important, non-accent. That is to say, in singing, the “upbow” and “downbow” of the vocal elocution should be just as important as it is for the well trained violinist. It all depends, of course, on the relative valence of each syllable. This is palpable in the vocal delivery of each of these women, whether in concert with one another, or as soloist. And, they fashion their phrases with the expertise of a Saville Row tailor.

An ongoing challenge for any chorus of women is how to represent the lowest end (Bass II in a mixed choir, Alto II in women’s voices) with integrity and acoustical presence, especially while being asked to ascend to high ranges only moments before. The low voices met this challenge admirably, This is not easy: E’s and F’s below middle C are in the bottom range of even the most mature contralto. Fortunately for said altos, this is not a choir that flats very often.

Another element of depth, or perhaps height, of the vocal product, was the series of overtones audible in the Abbey, produced most often by chords of some length. This is the nth degree of tuning in music: if we can hear overtones, then the chords are perfectly in tune.

In Mulieribus Horae from Sumi Wu on Vimeo.

Almost all of the pieces on this program were children of the Medieval and Renaissance periods. My personal favorites were the motets of Palestrina (“Ave Maria Paribus”), Morales (“O Magnum Mysterium”), and Byrd (“Adorna Thalalum”). These offered polyphonic depth and a glowing aura of artistry. One of three anonymous pieces “In Natali Domino” (On the birth of the Lord) made a striking midpoint to the concert. Soloists Arwen Myers and Catherine van der Salm delighted us in their bravura singing.

The tectonic plates of choral music are shifting again (always?) over the past two decades, as many composers have moved to the “soundscape” format, where there are stacks of pretty chords in a long row, but not much counterpoint, if any. One of the most attractive balances in the program was the polyphony present in many of the works, and on the other hand, the monophony (one melodic line) offered in a couple of the chant like pieces.

Religions, as much as or perhaps more than any institution, depend on a predictable order of things. As we drove through the long driveway leading to the Abbey, we saw the stations of the Cross, each in a wooden casement, distinctive, inviting. Iconic observances of period devotion and sanctification, present also in Judaic and Islamic worship, are the constancy upon which the books of hours are based.

The constancy of In Mulieribus’s artistry, creative programming—their vocal signature—is becoming something upon which Northwest audiences can rely. It is a product “made in Oregon” that could find itself being marketed beyond our borders.

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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