william byrd festival

Virtual Festivals

Oregon festivals keep the music spreading online and in other virus-resistant ways

Summer is festival season in Oregon music, and last month, we noted how several major Oregon summer festivals were making the transition from onstage to online. The parade continues in July and August, beginning with what’s always the major musical event of Independence Day weekend. As ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks explained in Blues Minus the Waterfront, Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival is shifting its annual July 4 show from one large stream — the bank of the Willamette River — to a mostly virtual one. The fest will stream highlights of past festivals on KOIN 6 over the air and online July 4, and on KBOO 90.7 FM and online July 4&5. But happily, the festival has also managed to safely add a live component. Instead of grooving to the blues in big, virus-friendly crowds, Blues Fest Bandwagon brings performances to select driveways, cul-de-sacs, and front porches in the Portland metro area Friday and Saturday.

Amenta Abioto performs at Pavement on July 18.

That’s not the only show to venture out to non traditional outdoor spaces for distanced live performance. On July 18, Risk/Reward Festival and Portland’s Boom Arts theater company present Pavement: pop-up performances in a public parking lot on Portland’s Central Eastside. Where? Excellent question, and to find the answer, and see and hear music by Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi, Portland Opera, and Amenta Abioto, plus some of the city’s top dance and theater artists, you’ll need a ticket. All these free streams we’ve enjoyed are a treat, but artists still need to eat and pay rent.


Byrd is the wyrd

William Byrd Festival concert finale shows enduring value of Renaissance music in live performance


At a recent social gathering, I overheard a person asking, in reference to Portland’s upcoming William Byrd Festival, “who wants to hear that old stuff, anyway?” To which I replied, eruditely, “it’s part of our musical heritage.” To which she responded “Fine, preserve it, but we don’t need to hear it.”

Time to refresh my drink.

Fact is, Byrd groupies–performers and listeners alike–flock year after year (21 years, to be precise) to Portland’s Byrd Festival, which concluded August 25. The annual two week summer celebration of England’s greatest Renaissance composer is an artistic happening and an Oregon treasure. 

How has this continued, year after year, getting better and better? What’s the draw of William Byrd, an Elizabethan composer, 1543-1624? He’s been dead for 395 years, yet his music is still alive. So what’s the deal?

Cantores in Ecclesia performing at the 2014 William Byrd Festival.

First, live a long time

We exist in a period of time where fame is clocked from the onset of “trending” to the ”whatever happened to” column in #NOw*! WEaKLY#. We forget what it took – what it takes – for a composer like William Byrd to span the centuries and attract thousands of fans to a festival of his music. 

Byrd was a great talent and a hard worker. He also had an ideal combination of factors beneficial in achieving true and lasting fame.

First: live a long time. Yeah, there are the prolific exceptions (Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn) who died young, but it doesn’t hurt to have 40 or 50 years to hone the craft. How wonderful for us (and for them) if Distler, Gershwin, Arriaga, and Purcell had had more years to produce beautiful music.

Second: crossing musical genres as composer and artist–being truly gifted in sacred and secular music, instrumental and choral music–helps achieve the greatest exposure. 

It has also helped many a composer to have a patron–either a royal house or the Church–and/or a supporting post. 

Composer William Byrd.

William Byrd checked all of these boxes. He did, in fact, live a long life (c. 1540-1623). He indulged in all the genres available to him at the time–motets, masses, madrigals, and keyboard pieces–and was well recognized in each. He had a patron in Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, one of his biggest fans despite his Catholicism. 

Byrd, along with Thomas Tallis, had the added advantage of being granted, in 1575, a proprietary license by Elizabeth I for the import and publication of polyphonic musical works–including their own. Hitherto, music had been sent to Henry VIII for approval and distribution of rights. What a coup!

And luck? Sure, never hurts. Coming of professional age at the advent of mass printing. Thomas Tallis as your mentor and professional partner. Kismet.

Byrd, a Catholic, personally and professionally survived the Protestant Elizabethan period of religious chaos, perhaps garnering tolerance through loyalty–although he and his family were called to task numerous times for Catholic assembly and affiliation.

Festival as patron

And so, here in Portland, the annual William Byrd Festival is a modern day patron of Byrd and his music. It started over two decades ago as the vision of current executive director Dean Applegate and the late Richard Marlow. The festival’s continuing success is due to their persistence in continuing to attract and maintain talent, sponsors and audiences. Scholar-musicians, including William Mahrt, Kerry McCarthy, David Trendell and Ross Duffin have appeared. Conductor Blake Applegate has used his considerable talents to elevate the artistry of the choral forces.

Current Byrd Festival Music Director Mark Williams – organist, Director of Music and Tutorial Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford – skillfully plans and conducts, and also provides the beloved bubbly Byrd bits on the keyboard. The music is always performed with the goal of historical accuracy, and great effort is made through lectures and modeling to educate the audience about Byrd’s music, life, and times.

Mark Williams directs Cantores in Ecclesia at the 2017 William Byrd Festival.

In the August 25 Festival finale at Southeast Portland’s St. Philip Neri Church concert, Portland’s Cantores in Ecclesia–since 2010 conducted year ’round and prepared for the Festival by Blake Applegate–sang with finesse and ebullience under Mr. Williams, with near-perfect intonation in each of the motets from Byrd’s Cantiones Sacrae (Sacred Songs 1589-1591). Because of the polyphonic settings, the delineation of moving parts must be clear, and indeed it was–crystal–in all but one piece. The dovetailing of phrases was audible and dynamic contrast always prevalent.

These Cantiones Sacrae represent not only staunch Catholic doctrine but also commentary on the social/political climate. Musically, they are exquisite examples two of Byrd’s techniques: purposeful use of specific intervals (i.e., minor second and minor sixth) to indicate pathos, and word painting to depict mood (hopeful, sad, plaintive ) or direction (to heaven or to hell). 

A choir that listens

On this closing night, the program order was brilliantly nuanced. As Festival resident lecturer (and singer) William Mahrt pointed out, the pieces–while serious and pious–ran the emotions from ecstatic to sorrowful, hopeful to doubting. Mr. Williams delicately crafted two segues, with the ending tones of one work barely decaying in St. Phil before the opening tones of the next work. It enabled a vital drive: one less full stop, making the journey more enjoyable. This was particularly helpful when the final words of the “Quis est homo” (“Who is the man”) speak of wiping the memory of those who do evil from the earth (ye’gads) and the next words are “Cantate Domino” (“Sing a new song”).


Among many standouts were “Haec Dies” (“This is the day”), with its intricate rhythmic changes and celebrative mood and tempo; “Descendit de caelis” (“He descended from heaven”), which sometimes abruptly changed harmonies at appropriate junctures, and was sung with divinely-inspired intonation; and the subdued excitement of “In resurrection tua” (“At your resurrection, Lord”). The added attraction of the organ pieces made Byrd’s genius even clearer, with sparkling flourishes under the expert guidance of Mr. Williams’ fingers. 

Mark Williams performing Byrd’s keyboard music.

In the sorrowful “Cunctis diebus” (“All the days that I now serve”), intertwining lines flickered and wavered like candlelight, mysterious yet comforting. No soloists were featured in this night’s offerings, but it was a pleasure–by virtue of reduced choral forces–to hear the male voices featured in the “Afflicti pro peccatis” (“Afflicted for our sins”). 

The concert finale, “Domine quis habitabit” (“Lord, who shall dwell in your tabernacle”), featured many of Byrd’s signature musical gestures: cross-relations (no, not angry aunts, but the jangle of two side-by-side notes just a half-step apart) and close imitation of sumptuous vocal lines. It is also a maverick composition, in that it contains nine separate vocal lines, making a thick and dark mix in the already thick St. Philip Neri acoustics.

This is a choir that listens, and they did their best to delineate the lines and make use of the great tonal decay in these acoustics. Mr. Williams seems to have forged his own choral sound with Cantores, approaching the best features of an English Choir sound with careful phrasing, intonation, and clear tone quality. 

These works and his Anglican church compositions, secular works, and keyboard masterpieces are the Byrd legacy. They provided solace, joy and inspiration to 300 more years of devout church goers — and then were tossed quarter note over semiquaver into the artistic maelstrom that is “church music” over the past 50 years.

Mark Williams conducted Cantores in Ecclesia in the final concert of the 2017 William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Populism schmopulism – Byrd is the word

Populism in sacred musical contexts didn’t start with Vatican II–and it won’t end if Latin texts are suddenly welcomed back wholesale into the Catholic Church. And it isn’t solely a manifestation of Evangelical worship services; mainline sects (Presbyterian, Methodist, etc.) have also inclined toward the populist praise band phenomenon. 

The reality is that you won’t hear much William Byrd on generic choral concert stages (even in universities), and there are relatively few churches that maintain choirs that include early music in their services. Specialty choirs have taken this on – choirs such as Byrd Ensemble, Tallis Scholars, Cappella Romana. 

In our awareness of how exclusionary the arts world has been over time, we are making strides. We should pursue and nurture inclusion of the highest quality of all art from all eras and origins; we should not completely exclude genius of the past to champion modern mediocrity. 

Cantores in Ecclesia at the 2012 William Byrd Festival.

Days after that social gathering where I encountered the skeptic who thought we no longer needed to hear Byrd’s music in live performance, a graceful and thoughtful response finally came to mind. So, here it is.

“We have museums for our visual arts and antiquities. We have heritage site designations for our architecture. We have libraries for our literary arts. For the lively arts, we have concerts. We ARE the posterity for which art is preserved. We the church, we the conductors, we the musicians, we the educators, we the audience.” This is why I am such fun at parties. 

Okay, people. Let’s get on the net and get this artist millions of hits. This is how it happens, right? That’s Byrd with a “y.” Biggest hit? Uh, maybe “Haec Dies.” Label? Didn’t record much. Does he tour? No, cause he’s, like, dead–but his stuff is covered by this tribute band Cantores In Ecclesia out of Portland. Next best time you can catch this guy’s music live on stage in Oregon–along with tunes by his bestie Thomas Tallis–is next August in Portland.

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.

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

MusicWatch Weekly: hot summer jazz

Smoke gets in your eyes, jazz gets in your ears this week as summer festivals continue despite the blazes

What began as an informal neighborhood musical soiree has blossomed into one of Portland’s jazz treasures. The fifth annual Montavilla Jazz Festival  at Portland Metro Arts, 9003 SE Stark, is headlined by the Grammy-nominated team of primo pianist Randy Porter’s Trio with jazz singing living legend Nancy King, performing the music from their recent Grammy-finalist album featuring Cole Porter tunes and more. The lyrical jazz duo of flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny and pianist Darrell Grant also reunites after too long a break, co-leading a quartet in new chamber jazz compositions.

Maybe the most intriguing act on the program was inspired by Tamolitch Pool on the McKenzie River near Blue River. One of our area’s most magnificent natural spaces, its allure inspired Salem-based composer-pianist James Miley’s evocative, ambitious new Watershed Suite, which Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performs at Montavilla and at a free show Thursday at (appropriately) Springfield’s Roaring Rapids. Miley, a Willamette University music prof who directs Willamette Jazz Collective, combines classical and jazz influences in a multifaceted work that translates the complex beauty Oregon’s watersheds, including the mighty Columbia River and Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge, into music. One of the state’s most valuable music institutions, PJCE features top Portland area performers and also continuously nurtures both performances and recordings of new, original jazz music compositions some of Oregon’s finest emerging and accomplished musicians.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performs at this weekend’s Montavilla Jazz Festival.

Other performers constitute an all-star lineup of Portland jazz performers leading expert ensembles, including national award winning pianist/organist/drummer/trumpeter George Colligan’s fun, multigenerational new electric trio Other Barry and guitar demon Ryan Meagher’s Evil Twin, both celebrating cool new releases on PJCE’s label that you can hear at the links above. Erstwhile Portlander Nicole Glover returns from New York to jam with local greats, and the festival also includes omnipresent drummer Alan Jones, saxophonist Tim Willcox, Christopher Brown, jazz/funk trumpet star Farnell Newton, bassist Shao Way Wu, and sets featuring some of the top improviser/composer/performers from PJCE and Creative Music Guild.

Nicole Glover performs at Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Diaz Duran.

Tonight, Roaring Rapids also features Bossa PDX, with Portland jazz pianist/singer Kerry Politzer, Colligan (who happens to be her spouse) on drums, sax titan Joe Manis, guitarist Enzo Irace (who shreds in Other Barry) and bassist Damian Erskine playing new arrangements of Brazilian classics. And there’s modern chamber jazz tonight in Portland, too, with Simone Baron’s piano trio in an intimate house concert at Casa Della Zisa, 4624 NE Fremont St.


MusicWatch Weekly: August catch-up

A new month brings more music festivals to Oregon

Keeping up with even the segment of Oregon’s increasingly busy music scene ArtsWatch can afford to cover (and we’d love to do more, if our readers and Oregon music institutions will help us pay for it) is nearly impossible when the season’s in full swing. It’s all we can do to tell you what’s about to happen, so you don’t miss the stuff you want to hear. That’s why we prioritize previews and reviews of continuing productions, like multi-performance operas. Readers have complained about us piling too many music stories at once, so we try to keep it to a maximum of one per day, which is about all we can handle with our current resources anyway.

That often means that reviews of non-recurring shows get pushed to the end of the line, or rather the end of the season. Which is where we find ourselves this month. With a few notable exceptions, most classical and jazz music institutions pretty much shut it down beginning in June, when western Oregonians at last joyously receive parole from our rain-huddled winter and spring imprisonment and head outside. Most of the rest, like the Astoria and Oregon Coast and Oregon Bach Festivals and Chamber Music Northwest, also call it a season when the smoke begins to descend. Which gives our writers (many of whom are working musicians and/or have day jobs) a chance to catch our breaths (figuratively at least) and finally catch up on those reviews they hadn’t time and/or we hadn’t room to deliver earlier.

That’s why you’ve been seeing reviews of events stretching back to early 2018 lately, and will be seeing more in coming weeks as our writers, once again stuck inside avoiding wildfire smoke, continue working through their backlogs. We hope you enjoy the memories until the new shows commence.

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

Which actually is, er, now! Yes, while a couple of major festivals close this weekend, no fewer than four more music festivals begin this week, including the annual William Byrd Festival, which runs August 10-26 at several Portland venues. Now embarking on its third decade of bringing Renaissance choral music to Portland, the annual festival includes public lectures, open-to-the-public choral performances at church services, an organ recital, and a pair of public concerts. Friday’s opening concert at Portland’s Old Church, directed by renowned English choral conductor Jeremy Summerly, features masterpieces from 1610-11 — the transitional period between the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Friday also marks the opening of the annual Sunriver Music Festival, with a concert celebrating the centenary of one of America’s mightiest men of music, Leonard Bernstein. Along with his ballet score Fancy Free and joyously jazzy Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, the concert includes Rhapsody in Blue by one of Bernstein’s great inspirations, George Gershwin, and a brief, brash, bustling 1992 work by the American composer whose new Passion was premiered last month at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Composer Richard Danielpour works with the Oregon Bach Festival chorus in preparation for the premiere of his ‘Yeshua Passion.’

“While Toward the Splendid City was composed as a portrait of New York, the city in which I live,” Richard Danielpour has written, he actually began it during his year-long residency with the  Seattle Symphony, a Northwest sojourn which not surprisingly gave him “serious second thoughts about returning to New York. Life was always complicated in the city and easier, it seemed, everywhere else. I was, however, not without a certain pang of nostalgia for my hometown, and as a result Toward the Splendid City was driven by my love-hate relationship with New York. The work’s title comes from the heading of Pablo Neruda’s 1974 Nobel Prize address.” He wound up going back anyway.