William Byrd Festival review: small wonders

Opening concert confounds expectations with focus on English Renaissance composer’s small-scale, secular works

If you’ve attended William Byrd Festival concerts over the past 20 years, you might have certain expectations: sublime sacred choral music from English Renaissance, performed by one of the state’s finest large choirs, Cantores in Ecclesia, in a capacious church or cathedral, providing a spiritual balm that lifts you out of mundane present concerns like today’s discordant politics.

English conductor Jeremy Summerly (center) led a vocal ensemble at the 2017 William Byrd Festival.

None of that happened at the August 11 opening 20th anniversary festival concert. “Music’s Lore” featured its namesake composer’s secular, not sacred, songs and accordingly took place not in a sacred space but in The Old Church concert hall, which has been an un-holy performance space for decades. Both songs and concert (about an hour with no intermission) were short and sweet rather than extended or even epic like Byrd’s great Masses (performed later in the festival), and instead of the Cantores dozens, included only eight performers. And rather than transcending human concerns for more elevated spirituality, raw human emotions and divisive, even deadly politics were very much in the air.

Anyone expecting a “churchy” vibe might have been surprised by the gusto erupting in Byrd’s “The fair young virgin,” with its “young gallants and ladies most desired / delight to have therewith their heads and breasts attired.” You’d have thought Byrd’s a cappella setting of Ariosto’s verse from Orlando Furioso was just about lusty young things frolicking in spring. In fact, the song is all about Byrd’s actual monarch, who ruled a century after the verse was written. Queen Elizabeth famously used her “virginity” (that is, her refusal to betroth herself to any of the European monarchs who sought an alliance with England) as a political strategy to keep her country’s international rivals off balance and at bay, as listeners then would have understood.

The following “In Angel’s Weed,” featuring Samantha Arten’s clear, unembellished solo, similarly praised Elizabeth and defended her from “false suspect and jealousy of those/ whom fear had wrought to be her mortal foes.” As Summerly said: “Byrd lived in complicated times.”

Elizabeth I

Understatement! Byrd was a recusant Catholic at a time when the Protestants were in ascendance, thanks to Elizabeth and her father, Henry VIII, who persecuted Catholics who refused to accept the Anglican church and royal authority over religion. Byrd’s reputation and skill, and Elizabeth’s favor, along with the political wiles apparent in these songs, probably kept him safe.

One of the most famous victims of England’s religious wars of the time was Edmund Campion, a friend of Byrd’s who was gruesomely executed for Catholic apostasy. Byrd’s “Why do I use my paper ink, and pen,” performed here by a cappella quintet, was actually a coded elegy to that Catholic martyr, avoiding verses that explicitly mentioned Campion by name but with an implication that any Catholic of the time would have understood.

Similarly, Byrd wrote “Crowned with flowers” to celebrate another Catholic heroine, Mary Tudor, years after her death, after Protestant King James gave his deceased Protestant predecessor, Elizabeth, a lavish monument in Westminster Abbey while “fortune thee denieth a pyramid of gold” for Catholic Queen Mary. Catherine van der Salm’s sturdy soprano solo summoned anger as well as grief.

Summerly Summaries

We learned this history from brief, informative introductions provided by conductor Jeremy Summerly, one of England’s most distinguished choral musicians, who provided pithy historical context. In no more than a few sentences each, Summerly’s enthusiastic, extemporaneous between-song notes revealed the intriguing stories behind the songs. In contrast to another recent vocal concert that also combined historical explanation with performance, Summerly’s chats took no longer than needed for the singers to reassemble, as each successive song used a different combination — solo, duo, trio, up to sextet — which thoughtfully gave the audience a welcome variety of textures. Summerly (barely) conducted with a subtle occasional nod or wave of his hand, but mostly sang in the larger ensembles himself.

William Byrd (1543-1643)

More valuable context was provided by the festival’s handsome, thorough and authoritative program. Byrd’s music works fine for modern audiences even if you don’t know the background, but for those of us who want to learn more, it’s a treat to have it presented with such care.

Not that the concert was all about politics. Byrd’s lachrymose elegy “Ye sacred muses” lamented the death of another Byrd friend, his mentor Thomas Tallis: “Tallis is dead,” sang Kerry McCarthy in an appropriately deep alto, “and Music dies.”

The quintet had to swing wildly between emotions in “Lullaby, my sweet little baby,” possibly the weirdest lullaby ever written, and the only one I’ve heard that has a murder — infanticide no less! — in the middle. The singers started off soothing and tender — then erupted into fury on “behold what slaughter he doth make, shedding the blood of infants all,” referring to King Herod ordering the killing of infants to prevent one of them from growing up to depose him. They returned to softer tones for the closing “lulla, lullaby” but I’m not sure scaring the bejeezus out of the little ones is the best way to get them to dreamland — or maybe it is. Go to sleep, my pretty — or else Herod will get you! Sweet dreams now (shudder)!

Mark Williams. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Emotional commitment also invigorated Mark Williams’s pair of organ solos “for My Lady Nevell,” including a heartfelt, almost rhapsodic turn toward the end of “Voluntary” and totally rocking out on “Qui Passe” with a spectacular amphetamine solo that Keith Jarrett himself would have envied. Before becoming a choral conductor and Byrd Festival artistic director in 2014, the “Informator Christarum, Organist and Tutorial Fellow” of Oxford’s Magdalen College made his name as a keyboard whiz, and his chops and taste remain intact in both the two solo showcases and in his sensitive accompaniment to several of solo vocal pieces. I just wish he’d used a small portative organ for these intimate works rather than the Old Church’s big, beautiful instrument. (He’ll use a small instrument in Sunday’s finale.) Much of this music can be legitimately accompanied by various instruments — harpsichord, viols, lute — but the organ’s versatility worked well.

Using smaller forces rather than large choir in the more complex songs elucidated Byrd’s celebrated polyphony (multiple interwoven melody lines). This requires singers capable of carrying each part alone, and the stalwart crew here (sopranos Arten and van der Salm, altos Susan Hale and McCarthy, tenor Michael Hilton (and sometimes Summerly) and baritone Christopher Engbretson) generally did so with skill and even panache.

The chamber concert closed with all six singers praising “Eliza … O beauteous Queen of second Troy” in an ebullient second version of “This sweet and merry month of May,” whereupon Summerly turned to the audience. “It’s a shame I have to travel halfway across the globe to perform a concert of secular music by William Byrd,” he said, “but I thank you very much for allowing me to do it.”

Evidently even in Byrd’s homeland, a show like this one confounds expectations, and considering what delight it was and what a surprisingly wide variety of excellent music Byrd composed, it’s indeed a shame that it doesn’t happen more often. We Oregonians are lucky to have the William Byrd Festival here to provide it. Here’s to another 20 years.

The 20th annual William Byrd Festival closes Sunday, August 27, at Portland’s St. Philp Neri Church with a 4 pm performance of Byrd’s sacred choral music by Cantores in Ecclesia, directed by Mark Williams. Tickets are available by phone 1.800.838.3006, online, or at the door.

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