Palestrina

Sounds of Spain: borders and time

The Byrd Ensemble's concert of 16th century church music keeps the flame of a different culture, with resonances for our own

On Sunday afternoon, thanks to the Seattle choir The Byrd Ensemble, I crossed several borders without passport or visa or patdown by border patrols. The first was the entry to St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Southeast Portland, where the Byrds, in a concert presented by Cappella Romana, were performing. The second was the border to Spain, the source of most of the music on the program, which was titled “Spanish Music for the House of Habsburg.” The third was time itself: For the afternoon I was in the embrace of the 16th and early 17th centuries, places attainable only through the fragmental collective memory of a learned culture.

The Byrd Ensemble: travelers in time.

The big attraction was Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Requiem Mass, a long, mournful, and revelatory work of imagination and restraint, which the ten-singer choir delivered with a lovely unity of sound: as with most top choirs, the group voice is closely calibrated and takes precedence over the individual voice. The classically proportioned St. Stephen’s has rich and lively acoustics, and the choir’s singing, with its crisp balances and full bass tones, seemed sometimes like the sonorous boom of a pipe organ filling the hall. After intermission the program continued with another short Victoria piece, a pair by his contemporary Cristóbal de Morales, one by Alonso Lobo, and a finale by the great, slightly older, Italian counter-reformation composer Palestrina.

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