A combination of delay at the Rt. 128 tolls on the Mass Turnpike and downtown traffic on Sunday afternoon conspired to make me late for the first Boston appearance of the Seattle-based Renaissance chorus, the Byrd Ensemble, directed by Markdavin Obenza (though conducted on this occasion by Peter Phillips, the highly regarded director of the Tallis Scholars) at Boston’s First Lutheran Church on October 23. I missed almost all the first half, arriving at about the start of the Doxology in the final piece, a a Magnificat by William Pasche, an almost unknown composer of the late fifteenth-early sixteenth centuries. The remainder of the program consisted entirely of music by the two greatest masters of liturgical music in the Tudor period, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.
I was very sorry to miss that first half, because, based on the part of the program I did hear, the Byrd Ensemble is a first-rate group ideally suited to perform the music of their eponymous composer and his colleagues. Twelve singers took part on this occasion, two or three voices to a part. The clarity of tone and the blend between pairs (always trickier with just two on a part than any other combination) were splendid, making possible the clearest projection of the contrapuntal lines.
These lines grow somewhat less melismatic — singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession — as the sixteenth century unfolds, but they remain flexible and diverse from one voice part to another. The portion of the William Pasche Magnificat that I heard live (and later listened to on the new CD that they offered for sale at the concert) is characteristic of the earliest Tudor composers in this ripe melismatic flow, emphasizing the interplay of melodic lines and, to a degree, concealing the words in the contrapuntal structure. In the later period of Elizabeth’s reign, many of the smaller works, such as the communion motet Ave verum corpus, have more homophonic passages, allowing the words to be more clearly heard and also offering the possibility that harmonic adventures may become more expressive. In either case, the Byrd Ensemble provides a beautiful balance between the parts and elegantly shaped renderings of the rhythmically flexible lines. The other Byrd pieces on the program I heard were Ne irascaris, O God the proud are risen, and Tribue Domine; the Tallis, Blessed are those that be undefiled.
On this occasion the ensemble was directed by Peter Phillips, whose twelve-voice Tallis Scholars (founded in 1973, just a year after he arrived as a student at Oxford) has long been the most highly regarded of early music choruses. I suspect that he was invited to lead this tour, the first that the Byrd Ensemble has made out of its home state, partly in order to attract a larger audience for the performance by a group essentially unknown in New England. More important, perhaps, was his acceptance of the invitation, which indicates his high regard for this ensemble, and justifiably so.
If the intention was to help attract an audience with a well-known guest conductor, it sadly miscarried, probably owing to the extraordinary number of musical activities that go on around Boston in early autumn. Only about a dozen people made it to the free concert — sad indeed for an event of such quality in a city that has many passionate devotees of the music of the Renaissance. At any event, I hope the organizers of the Boston Early Music Festival take note of the Byrd Ensemble, which certainly deserves consideration as an invited ensemble for any future BEMF festival looking for a top-notch Renaissance chorus.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.