by BRUCE BROWNE
“Which is more important? Words or music?”
Having recently seen Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio, in which the central theme is this very question, I have been pondering this point. As a choral conductor, my art is dealing with words and music. And so, unlike the inconclusive conclusion to that question in the Strauss opera, I have the definitive answer – at least for today.
Words convey thoughts and ideas, to elicit response, to provoke emotional reaction. Choral music set to text, unless the text is your Toyota owner’s manual, is often set in a manner that complements or enhances the understanding of words.
All theorizing on the above points is for naught, however, unless the performance itself is revelatory. Correct notes, careful tuning and the exacting entrances and releases are essential as part of an ideal artistic experience. This is what Cantores in Ecclesia provided in the final concert of Portland’s annual William Byrd Festival last Sunday. The settings of biblical texts they sang show how enmeshed Byrd and his English Renaissance colleagues were in the words, from the overall arching form and long phrases down to the smallest detail. Several structural factors, stylistic norms, contributed to the emotional expression.
The pews at northeast Portland’s beautiful St. Patrick’s Cathedral were filled with the loyal festival goers who braved the 102 degree heat in the window-cooled sanctuary. Had Festival Artistic Director Mark Williams known, he might have programmed Thomas Morley’s “Fire, Fire” just for comedy relief. We were treated instead to the glorious choral and organ works of Byrd and his English contemporaries and successors. The construction of the program was very intelligent, especially, in hindsight, given the draining effect of the temperature, with excellent balance offering wonderful range of emotional involvement.
The opening piece, the only Byrd work in English text, was “Sing Joyfully,” whose soprano opening line jumps a fifth in symbolic joy and the rest of the voices follow suit. “Exsurge, quare obdormis, Domine” (Arise, why are you sleeping) repeats with a lilting ascending run of five notes but later leans into tied dissonant intervals of the second for the text ‘do you forget our poverty.’
In the middle of the second half, the higher voices exited the stage and the choir repositioned for the “Deficit in dolore cita mea” (My life has wasted away in pain). Given the temperature, it was a difficult go for a piece of this temperament. It was here that the lack of a bright low bass sound in the choir was most obvious. With many slow exposed lines and absence of soprano luster, it proved the only lag in the performance.
But the poignant “When David Heard” by Thomas Tomkins won the Renaissance music emotivist award. The impassioned wailing of ‘O my son, Absolom my son’ was tastefully but heart-wrenchingly rendered. The magnificent music painting the iconic words from 2 Samuel (18:33) needed only to be caressed by the choir’s expertise. It was wonderful.
Cantores director Blake Applegate should be very proud of the way his choir responded to Mark Williams. Cantores in Ecclesia, or more properly the “fortified” Cantores Byrd Festival Choir, has brought quality choral music to Portland for 33 years. The peripatetic choir became independent from St. Patrick’s in 2002 and has since enjoyed several homes, for the past nine years St. Stephen’s Catholic Church on the east side, and now, back to St. Patrick’s. The basic sound has changed but little over the past 25 years in most obvious aspects: clear and well tuned polyphonic lines infusing the rich treasures of the Renaissance and early Baroque motets and masses, especially by Byrd and his contemporaries. That said, one must acknowledge the 2010 passing of the baton from father to son – Dean Applegate, founder of the vocal feast, to his son, Blake — whose preparation of the choir for Mr. Williams was clearly first rate.
As the music of Byrd concentrates a great deal on the conveying of emotion, it seems essential to mention that the visual image – the choral countenance — can be an asset or a liability. This isn’t musical theater; it isn’t about acting but, at least appearing to be engaged. (Of course, Cantores gets a break on this sweltering night. Perhaps sweat dripping like tears on the musical page was all the engagement some could manage.) Still, there needs to be a collective light in the eye of the performer or the light in the overall product is in danger of being dimmed. Congrats to the singers who remembered that the audience hears them with their eyes as well.
Choirs also engage listeners by providing appropriate musical variety in dynamics and other factors. With Byrd’s tendency toward musical pontification on a particular liturgical text, such as repeating the ominous words ‘deleas iniquitatem meam’ (wipe out my offense) in “Domine, secundum actum meum” (Lord, do not judge me), there needs to be a constant ebb and flow of the musical line to maintain interest. Conductor Williams and the choir made this happen. And they brought a welcome relief of a variety of articulation to the declamation, often wresting from the page those moments of onomatopoeia that Byrd had cleverly placed.
Sunday’s performance provided a delightful bedazzlement as I rarely hear so beautifully portrayed the musical practice of stretto. Used at the end portion of a fugue or fugue section, stretto creates the impression of rushing to the climax or finish line by parsing the text, emphasizing single or a few key words, so that the listener can be “carried home,” so to speak, by abbreviations of the fugue theme (subject) or contracted space between reiterations of the theme. It’s a built-in “big finish,” Renaissance style, so many times underplayed or allowed to peter out. Not so in director Mark Williams’s hands. As in the final moments of Byrd’s “Haec dicit Dominus” (Thus says the Lord) the stretti were not just sung, they were celebrated.
And so, our answer to the question — which is more important, words or music? — is to find the best quality performance of William Byrd, in a wonderful setting, sit back and allow the perfect artistic emulsification to occur. Therein lies the answer.
Next August will mark the 20th anniversary of the festival, with many words and much more music to hear.
A side note and conversation starter. Quo vadis for Cantores in Ecclesia? It was mentioned at the end of this closing concert that the choir was in a bit of a pickle for a home. Not much light was shed on this, but we hope something can be done in our ecumenical and choral community to helped preserve this treasure. More to come on this.
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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