Tudor Choir review: wall of sound

Seattle ensemble’s concert of early English and contemporary American choral music offers intriguing programming but monochromatic performance

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

The Tudor Choir re-opened for business this month. On hiatus since 2015, the ensemble presented one concert in their hometown of Seattle and two more in the Portland Metro area, at St. Mary’s Cathedral and in Hillsboro’s St. Matthew’s Church. The latter is a wonderfully accessible venue with a reverberant acoustic, challenging but with potential for this concert’s Tudor period music in which melismatic lines and reiterated melodies are woven through cleanly defined harmonies – when the choir and director find a way to bring this to the fore.

To a degree, the performance undermined that perfection of detail by creating a uniform wall of sound that obfuscated inner phrasing, was mostly uni-dynamic throughout, and void of nuance. There were, however, many wonderful duets that provided sonic and textural relief from the unvarying full-voiced mass sections.

Seattle’s Tudor Choir performed in Hillsboro, Portland, and Seattle. Photo: Sarah Wolf / Catholic Sentinel.

These concerts presented the music of two composers from an England in ecclesiastic turmoil. The music of John Taverner and John Sheppard represented some of the earliest examples of English choral polyphony. With insightful programming, however, founding conductor Doug Fullington ventured to the opposite extreme and paired that duo with two contemporary American composers: Jeff Junkinsmith and Nico Muhly. The gap of four centuries was bridged by subject matter and a common tune.

The performance, however, never quite rose above the purely technical. The music was not allowed to bloom and breathe. Of the thirteen voices, all but one was featured as a soloist throughout the ten-work program. Each was sumptuous, well trained with near perfect intonation. The entire ensemble blended vowels; entrances and releases were as one.

The featured works of John Taverner (c. 1490-1545), Le Roy Kyrie and Western Wind Mass, are based on simple melodic lines. The latter, in fact, may be the first mass setting based on a secular tune. Immediately after the first choral iteration of these tunes comes what could be summed up as “moving lines,” with the melody embellished, truncated, stretched or purely repeated. These moving lines provide the points of interest. They can be emboldened in performance by a downplaying non-essential lines, word accent, differentiation of dynamics or word accents.

Word accent: seemingly minuscule, but ever important concept that differentiates weight of syllables, and thus notes, within a phrase. Back in the day – that is 1500-ish – singers likely had only their own vocal parts in front of them, realizing each phrase with an ebb and flow of the natural spoken words, resulting in proper word accent. We did not hear enough of this from the modern Tudor singers.

More attention to opposite poles of the dynamic range would also have been welcome. The late, great American choral conductor Robert Shaw often said, “Forte (loud) obscures, double forte kills.” In this concert, delicate pianissimo dynamics occurred only when there were fewer singers, as in the In pace in idipsum of John Sheppard (c. 1515-1558), or on cadential “Amens” or in a few soft strains in Nico Muhly’s premiere Small Raine, commissioned by the Tudor Choir.

Seattle’s Tudor Choir performed in Portland in 2014. Photo: Mark Powell.

Muhly (b. 1981) has already forged a national and international reputation with diverse scores for nearly every possible medium of vocal and instrumental music. His portfolio includes a few film scores, ballet, several operas (including Marnie, premiering at the Metropolitan Opera next fall) and other choral commissions from notable ensembles such as Tallis Scholars and Hilliard Ensemble.

Muhly’s Small Raine showed depth and gravitas, with shimmering added-note harmonies taking different paths of composition than anything else on the program. And yet, the piece was based on the same ancient secular tune, “Western Wind, used in the Taverner Mass.

John Sheppard and one of his contemporaries, Christopher Tye, also composed Masses based on “Western Wind.” Very few of the Sheppard works survive. Not only did he die at a relatively young age (early 40s), his church career also occurred in an English church in great upheaval. The Haec Dies that opened this concert is considered one of his greatest compositions.

Director Fullington wisely placed Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, by Seattle composer Jeff Junkinsmith (b. 1956), at the end of the first half of Tudor works. The choir commissioned this piece in 2001 and it is difficult to imagine it being performed better. It awakened the senses by flirting with bi-tonality, tertiary harmonies and lush texture. These excellent musicians dissected the dissonances as if wielding precision German steel.

Hillsboro, Oregon’s fifth largest city, has great audience potential. It was not realized for this concert. Don’t give up on this growing community. Cappella Romana deserves kudos for facilitating this event. There is cultural building to be done, surely, but more groups should be encouraged to come to Hillsboro rather than the opposite. Continue to promote these events in the Beaverton and Hillsboro High Schools, at Pacific University and within the technology industries. Provide incentive for Portland audiences to travel to Hillsboro (parking is easier or only .2 miles from Hillsboro SE 3rd Max line). Just keep fine groups like the Tudor Choir coming. Do not miss them when they take the stage near you. The makings for an outstanding choral experience are there. It’s good to have them back.

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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