In Mulieribus review: musical time travel

Portland vocal ensemble's Christmas concert brings ancient music to life

by BRUCE BROWNE

In medieval Europe, “Mulier taceat in ecclesia” (women must be quiet in church) was the order of the day, until for at least two more centuries. That didn’t stop the women of In Mulieribus, the Portland women’s group of seven voices directed by Anna Song, on Wednesday evening at the St. James Proto-Cathedral in Vancouver WA. Virtually none of the music they performed would have been sung by women when it was written. So the singers deserve extra credit for modeling the treble voices we would have heard 600 years ago, arrived at essentially by non-vibrato singing and very careful blending. Except for the inclusion of female voices, what we heard from In Mulieribus is about as close to going back in time as we can get. The concert is repeated in Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral on Friday, December 22.

These women showed how much musical mastery those early audiences were missing. At its core, a truly memorable concert is composed of two things: curation (choosing the right pieces) and animation — bringing them to life, preserving their sonic essence in the chosen concert space. In Mulieribus accomplished both. Each piece was a gleaming gem in its own way and taken together created a palpable arch form. Waves of overtones were generated in St. James. And these occur only when a choir is singing perfectly in a perfectly tuned, perfectly blended manner.

In Mulieribus performed Wednesday in Vancouver and sings the same program Friday in Portland. Photo: David Lloyd Imageworks.

The repertoire was adroitly grouped in two ways: by subject – Angels and Prophecies, Magi, Shepherds, The Birth; and by region — notably England, France and Italy, all of which shared, during this time, a Roman Catholic visage of time and place. Each disparate regional style was presented cunningly by Ms. Song and the women, who constantly avoid the quotidian with grace and forethought. The highly decorative “Gloria,” from the Tournai Mass of 14th century France, was crystalline in its clarity and balance. Thought to have been concocted by several different composers, the Tournai is considered one of the earliest Missa tota, the complete mass presenting all five parts of the Ordinary – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. (Guillaume Machaut’s Messe de Notra Dame, the first known complete setting by a single composer, will be performed in Seattle and Portland February 2-3 by Cappella Romana).

The two Italian pieces, Magi videntes Stellam (The Magi seeing the stars) by Agostino Agazzari (1578-1640) and Omens de Saba venient (All they coming from Saba) by Giovanni Asola (1532-1609) were ravishing. The latter, referring to the Ethiopian city of Saba, was especially poignant in its energetic celebration of the “bringing of the gifts” and showing praise. Perhaps the most advanced in its harmonies and fullness of texture, it approached the high Renaissance styles of the contemporaries Palestrina and Victoria.

Choosing concert repertoire can be very tricky, especially in this day of accessibility to such a wide variety of literature. No, wait. Shouldn’t that make it easier? Certainly it is easier to access, to retrieve the pieces. The British Museum can, one might imagine, dispatch a digital manuscript across the pond in a matter of minutes. It is the culling of works, picking those which are true to the period (some primary source) and right for the group, and possess historical integrity. That is the hallmark of Anna Song’s programming.

When the melody of the Noel Nouvelet (known to many as “Sing We Now of Christmas”) was intoned, there was an audible sigh in the audience. This is a well loved piece arranged countless times for choirs. There might be several arrangements even with (involuntary shiver) piano accompaniment. Ms. Song did, in fact, choose a modern arrangement for this song by the director of one of Ireland’s premier choirs, Anúna. Irish composer Michael McGlynn is known for preserving tonal essence. One ear-popping tertiary harmony sprang forth but the piece was allowed to otherwise retain its modal beauty.

In Mulieribus’s musicians are highly skilled vocalists but their precision is a mark of communal sensitivity and expert coaching. Ms. Song, when she does conduct – she sometimes works as a singer from within the choir – is a model of fluid movement, easy to follow and clear, with no extraneous curlicues.

Sparkling solos abounded. Mervell Noght, Joseph (Do not marvel, Joseph), a precious setting of a dialogue between an angel and a confused but obedient father of Jesus, included a duet by Kari Ferguson and Ann Wetherell. The duo of Susan Hale and Jo Routh, with Tim Galloway rockin’ out on recorder, was a standout in the anonymous Nous voici dans la ville (Here we are in the city), with Joseph assuming his role from 15th century France. The solos of Catherine Van der Salm and Amanda Jane Kelley were equally fine in Thuys endere nyghth (The other night), an appealing duet (with choir singing as background and refrain) that represents a dialogue between Jesus and his mother, Mary.

The makeup of this group has changed over the years. But there’s been some addition by subtraction: the most recent member, soprano Amanda Jane Kelley, brings a perfectly round tone to top off the high end of the group’s sound. I might wish for a greater fullness on the low end: we could hear the alto sound, but sometimes missed a resonant “basso” to balance with the upper voices. A lower alto has appeared with them in the past, and co-founder, Tuesday Rupp Kingsbury, who now resides in New York, was certainly that as well.

Language is another signal virtue with these singers. Old English (think Chaucer’s time) is not so simple to grapple with, but it came alive in the early English carol Angelus ad Virginem (The Angels appeared to the virgin) which opened the concert. Neither is French an easy language to master. Choirs from high schools and even universities avoid it as they would a Schoenberg composition. But in this performance, it tumbled out perfectly fabricated and finessed, as if all the women had lived in France or at least Quebec City.

Still, in this particular repertoire, it might have been interesting to explore singing the Latin as it must have sounded in France in the 14th or 15th centuries. The brilliant English linguist and scholar Harold Copeman makes a strong argument for this in his book, Singing in Latin (Oxford). The “u” vowels throughout, for example, in “Agnus” would be much more closed than in today’s Latin, and the “g” of that same word would be hard, not soft, as we think of it in the received Latin.

St. James is an ideal venue for In Mulieribus. Resonant and balanced throughout, with flexible staging possibilities. The sanctuary is accessible, as are restroom facilities,  but for some reason this fact is held like a state secret. Be it known for future reference, one need not navigate clime and climb for personal comforts.

Curate – to select, organize and look after. In the loving arms of In Mulieribus, we not only know that the music of the ages is protected but also passed on in the best way, in performance, sung into the hearts and minds of the next generation — even though its original listeners could never have heard it performed even by extraordinary women musicians like these. This is a gift from the past for our time.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. 

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