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In Mulieribus review: musical time travel

Portland vocal ensemble's Christmas concert brings ancient music to life

In medieval Europe, “Mulier taceat in ecclesia” (women must be quiet in church) was the order of the day, until for at least two more centuries. That didn’t stop the women of In Mulieribus, the Portland women’s group of seven voices directed by Anna Song, on Wednesday evening at the St. James Proto-Cathedral in Vancouver WA. Virtually none of the music they performed would have been sung by women when it was written. So the singers deserve extra credit for modeling the treble voices we would have heard 600 years ago, arrived at essentially by non-vibrato singing and very careful blending. Except for the inclusion of female voices, what we heard from In Mulieribus is about as close to going back in time as we can get. The concert is repeated in Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral on Friday, December 22.

These women showed how much musical mastery those early audiences were missing. At its core, a truly memorable concert is composed of two things: curation (choosing the right pieces) and animation — bringing them to life, preserving their sonic essence in the chosen concert space. In Mulieribus accomplished both. Each piece was a gleaming gem in its own way and taken together created a palpable arch form. Waves of overtones were generated in St. James. And these occur only when a choir is singing perfectly in a perfectly tuned, perfectly blended manner.

The repertoire was adroitly grouped in two ways: by subject – Angels and Prophecies, Magi, Shepherds, The Birth; and by region — notably England, France and Italy, all of which shared, during this time, a Roman Catholic visage of time and place. Each disparate regional style was presented cunningly by Ms. Song and the women, who constantly avoid the quotidian with grace and forethought. The highly decorative “Gloria,” from the Tournai Mass of 14th century France, was crystalline in its clarity and balance. Thought to have been concocted by several different composers, the Tournai is considered one of the earliest Missa tota, the complete mass presenting all five parts of the Ordinary – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. (Guillaume Machaut’s Messe de Notra Dame, the first known complete setting by a single composer, will be performed in Seattle and Portland February 2-3 by Cappella Romana).

The two Italian pieces, Magi videntes Stellam (The Magi seeing the stars) by Agostino Agazzari (1578-1640) and Omens de Saba venient (All they coming from Saba) by Giovanni Asola (1532-1609) were ravishing. The latter, referring to the Ethiopian city of Saba, was especially poignant in its energetic celebration of the “bringing of the gifts” and showing praise. Perhaps the most advanced in its harmonies and fullness of texture, it approached the high Renaissance styles of the contemporaries Palestrina and Victoria.

Choosing concert repertoire can be very tricky, especially in this day of accessibility to such a wide variety of literature. No, wait. Shouldn’t that make it easier? Certainly it is easier to access, to retrieve the pieces. The British Museum can, one might imagine, dispatch a digital manuscript across the pond in a matter of minutes. It is the culling of works, picking those which are true to the period (some primary source) and right for the group, and possess historical integrity. That is the hallmark of Anna Song’s programming.

When the melody of the Noel Nouvelet (known to many as “Sing We Now of Christmas”) was intoned, there was an audible sigh in the audience. This is a well loved piece arranged countless times for choirs. There might be several arrangements even with (involuntary shiver) piano accompaniment. Ms. Song did, in fact, choose a modern arrangement for this song by the director of one of Ireland’s premier choirs, Anúna. Irish composer Michael McGlynn is known for preserving tonal essence. One ear-popping tertiary harmony sprang forth but the piece was allowed to otherwise retain its modal beauty.

In Mulieribus’s musicians are highly skilled vocalists but their precision is a mark of communal sensitivity and expert coaching. Ms. Song, when she does conduct – she sometimes works as a singer from within the choir – is a model of fluid movement, easy to follow and clear, with no extraneous curlicues.

Sparkling solos abounded. Mervell Noght, Joseph (Do not marvel, Joseph), a precious setting of a dialogue between an angel and a confused but obedient father of Jesus, included a duet by Kari Ferguson and Ann Wetherell. The duo of Susan Hale and Jo Routh, with Tim Galloway rockin’ out on recorder, was a standout in the anonymous Nous voici dans la ville (Here we are in the city), with Joseph assuming his role from 15th century France. The solos of Catherine Van der Salm and Amanda Jane Kelley were equally fine in Thuys endere nyghth (The other night), an appealing duet (with choir singing as background and refrain) that represents a dialogue between Jesus and his mother, Mary.

The makeup of this group has changed over the years. But there’s been some addition by subtraction: the most recent member, soprano Amanda Jane Kelley, brings a perfectly round tone to top off the high end of the group’s sound. I might wish for a greater fullness on the low end: we could hear the alto sound, but sometimes missed a resonant “basso” to balance with the upper voices. A lower alto has appeared with them in the past, and co-founder, Tuesday Rupp Kingsbury, who now resides in New York, was certainly that as well.

Language is another signal virtue with these singers. Old English (think Chaucer’s time) is not so simple to grapple with, but it came alive in the early English carol Angelus ad Virginem (The Angels appeared to the virgin) which opened the concert. Neither is French an easy language to master. Choirs from high schools and even universities avoid it as they would a Schoenberg composition. But in this performance, it tumbled out perfectly fabricated and finessed, as if all the women had lived in France or at least Quebec City.

Still, in this particular repertoire, it might have been interesting to explore singing the Latin as it must have sounded in France in the 14th or 15th centuries. The brilliant English linguist and scholar Harold Copeman makes a strong argument for this in his book, Singing in Latin (Oxford). The “u” vowels throughout, for example, in “Agnus” would be much more closed than in today’s Latin, and the “g” of that same word would be hard, not soft, as we think of it in the received Latin.

St. James is an ideal venue for In Mulieribus. Resonant and balanced throughout, with flexible staging possibilities. The sanctuary is accessible, as are restroom facilities,  but for some reason this fact is held like a state secret. Be it known for future reference, one need not navigate clime and climb for personal comforts.

Curate – to select, organize and look after. In the loving arms of In Mulieribus, we not only know that the music of the ages is protected but also passed on in the best way, in performance, sung into the hearts and minds of the next generation — even though its original listeners could never have heard it performed even by extraordinary women musicians like these. This is a gift from the past for our time.

December 22, 2017 in oregon artswatch by bruce browne

In Mulieribus review: A decade of delicious dissonance

There are many fine mixed choirs in the Northwest, but far fewer adult treble choirs and men's choirs. In the category of exclusively non-mixed choirs, two in the Portland area stand out: the male group Male Ensemble Northwest, and the other, heard in their recent holiday concert, In Mulieribus.

This group of seven singers (director Anna Song, Kari Ferguson, Susan Hale, Arwen Myers, Jo Routh, Catherine van der Salm, and Ann Wetherell) is celebrating their tenth year. After beginning in modest circumstances, they have achieved an illustrious reputation during this last decade.

They've staked out their niche and stuck to it: singing early music (from c. 1150), seldom venturing past the 1800s, although more recently singing more modern works, including commissions. Many of the singers have been together for the duration. Co-founder Anna Song took complete charge when Tuesday Rupp moved to New York City; she's returning for In Mulieribus' tenth anniversary concert in May.

Last week's concert exemplified their mission: the program offered choral music spanning some 650 years, some originally for boys, but all, of course, for trebles. And the task is not so easy.

First, assemble all the right voices, attached to excellent ears, willing to compromise their solo voice for the good of the whole – check!

Next, research and choose just the proper literature, solos for some singers, catering to the impeccable musicianship, with thematic interest — check!

Then, get the perfect venue: St. Mary's or St. Elizabeth's in Portland; St. James in Vancouver – check!

But here's the real challenge. Monochromatic choral sound is, to a degree, inescapable for any non-mixed group. The literature we heard last night, at least in the first half, was all polished marble — beautiful, luminous, but monolithic, and much the same. Eight posts of gleaming marble in shades of white are a lot to take in. Nonetheless, Dr. Song managed even that challenge as well as anyone could.

Director Song was clever, inventive in ameliorating the built-in characteristic of medieval stasis: she mixed things up by showcasing the whole group in different vignettes, as it were: a trio, now a quartet, now a sextet. Combined with that, we heard a double choir effect, and later, three correspondent voices facing each other at angles. So the potentially monochromatic first half was avoided for the most part.

Many were the virtues of their singing: intonation always spot on; blend and balance summa cum laude. Production values, that is, visual involvement and commitment to text, always present. Phrasing, imaginative and cloned in all voices.

A hallmark of the In Mulieribus sound, perhaps more a philosophy of interpretation, is their treatment of dissonance. These women do not back off when it comes to the melodic intervals we now consider dissonant: seconds, the modal fourths, the sevenths. They approach the potential offender and embrace it full on.

Music from the mid- to late medieval period, roughly 900-1400, was loaded with incidental dissonance, generally in passing, as phrase beginnings and cadence points were expected to be open intervals (octave, fifth sometimes fourth). The parameters for use of these intervals – these rules of species counterpoint — are very specific (enough to keep an undergrad class yawning for a semester); but they have held listeners in their seats for centuries. Glorious music this, before the more regulated – yet beautiful – renaissance emphasis on major and minor modes and the curtailment on incidental dissonance. And Anna Song and company are wise and aware to place dissonance in a prominent position.

If not for the delicious dissonance, in fact, some of the pieces would have been difficult to sit through. This music hovers in the upper registers, lacking the added interest of a fundamental bass part, not added until the age of Josquin in the 15th century.

The entire first half of the program came from the polyphonic conductus (metrical Latin song of ceremonial character for one, two, or three voices) collection from the Notre Dame Manuscripts, now preserved in the Herzog August Bibliothek as Wolfenbuttel 1099 W2. The equipoise of the "Verbum Bonim Et Suave" (Let us ever sound the "Ave"), four phrases, four beats to each of six stanzas was offset by the florid and more through composed "Salvatoris Hodie" (Today the Savior). The latter's rhythmic interest is indicative of the French style in the mid-twelfth century.

Personal faves were the two English carols "Edi Beo Thu Hevene Quene" (Blessed be Thou Queen of Heaven (13th C.), and "There is no rose" (15th C.) in Olde English. These two, back to back, bore further evidence of Dr. Song's enlightened scholarship, as we could hear the tangible evolution of this one form over two centuries.

Another standout was a much later motet by Agostino Agazzari, "Magi Videntes Stellam" (The wise men saw the stars), the latest in the evening's published chronology, from a composer whose dates were 1578-1640. This was perfectly executed sonically and visually, with the three wise women (Jo Routh, Catherine van der Salm, and Arwen Myers) opposing one another, representational of the three magi.

A management note: it was perfectly appropriate to include in the program a plea for the audience NOT to applaud between numbers; it should just have been repeated orally at the outset, and perhaps the clappers might have withheld the (well-deserved) applause, allowing the program to proceed more organically. This could save wear and tear on audience and singers.

Even some of the singers appeared to be vocally tired towards the end of the concert. Very often in a program, less is more. My vote for the excision of one piece would have been the Palestrina "Alma Redemptoris Mater" (Hail redemptive Mother). It doesn't stand up to the preceding Josquin motet of the same text, and could well have been omitted.

The last two pieces were wonderful, the penultimate being a kind of signature piece for In Mulieribus. "Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen" (Lo, how a rose e'er blooming) was full of nuance and gentle enunciation. It would have been a perfect conclusion, no encore necessary.

The appreciative followers of In Mulieribus will come back for more. And there is more to come this year with concerts in the first weekend of March and the gala anniversary concert in May.

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.

january 2, 2017 in oregon artswatch by bruce browne

Vision and song bring medieval books to life

Mt. Angel Abbey Library has a treasure hidden away in the recesses of its basement that is about to be brought to life. There is a collection of gorgeous Medieval manuscripts maintained in a locked, climate controlled room. The illustrations and words from some of these rare books will be honored in song and video by the early music female vocal ensemble In Mulieribus in a forthcoming concert entitled "Horae: A Musical Book of Hours."

The Vision for the Concert Began 10 Years Ago

The person most responsible for pursuing the idea of having a concert featuring Books of Hours is Nancy Pole Wilhite, first president of the ensemble's board of directors. She visited the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2003 and was captivated by an exhibit entitled "Illuminating the Renaissance" that featured Flemish manuscript paintings as well as small, hand-held books used for devotional purposes.

These books not only had hand-written prayers but also contained vibrant illuminations featuring sometimes beginning initials of the prayers or sometimes filligree or depictions of flowers, animals or birds, even insects, along the margins. "Medievalists believed that small objects ideally embodied art and beauty," Nancy recalls. She says that these small prayer books are perfect examples of art of that era and are the medieval equivalent (at least in size) of our cell phones.

She was particularly drawn to the Master of Mary of Burgundy Book of Hours with its exquisite and ornate artwork and drawings. "As I moved from display case to display case I kept thinking of Mary of Burgundy using this book every day to pray with, and I could just hear women singing while at prayer," she says.

Nancy subsequently visited the Mount Angel Abbey library and its Books of Hour collection in 2009 with artistic director of In Mulieribus Anna Song and singer/art professor Ann Wetherell. They all concluded that there was sufficient material to stage a concert featuring visual images from that collection.

The Concert

Anna Song, artistic director of In Mulieribus since its inception, began researching vocal material from the era of the Books of Hours. She and Nancy developed the format: eight sections, each representing one of the hours of the day defined as Liturgy of the Hours, or the Divine Office, would structure the program. It begins with Matins at daybreak and ends with Compline, the evening prayer. The concert will focus on what is called the Hours of the Virgin which highlights Mary's role in salvation history and honors eight events in her life.

"I wanted to select songs that honored Mary at various crucial points in her life," says Ms. (Dr.) Song. She particularly loves the opening piece, "Beata Viscera Mariae Virginis." "Musically, it seems simple given its monophonic texture, but the melody is masterfully crafted. I chose it to open our concert because of its sheer beauty," she says. Another "short little gem" is "Assumpta est Maria" by Aichinger (1561-1628). This piece she says paints the picture of Mary being assumed in a most exuberant manner, a nice contrast from the mostly meditative pieces.

The Production and Video Components

This concert is unique in In Mulieribus' history inasmuch as there is a visual component that is timed to accompany specific music being sung. A large screen will have projected images highlighting aspects of the Mount Angel Books of Hours collection. The screen has a message all its own.

"My role," explains Sumi Wu, videographer, "is to visually tell the same story the music portrays." She is particularly drawn to the vision of women holding these books in their hands, using them to pray with.

"I used a different book for each hour," she says. This distinction is an effort to honor the individuality of the books she is depicting. She also tries to be musically sensitive. William Byrd (1543-1623), repeats words or phrases in different voice parts to add meaning or emphasis. "I try to do the same thing in the images by layering them," Sumi says.

She also tries to enhance the hour of the day in which the prayer occurs. At Matins, because it's before dawn, she incorporates the flicker of candlelight. At compline she plans on ending the video with a long peaceful, quiet image.

Vespers is one hour where she uses a different emphasis. "I went for it," she says, "and decided to use as many images of the flight to Egypt as I could, focusing on Mary holding her child." She had a variety of images to work with, and likes showing their emotive power. Some of them are more downtrodden than others, some more urgent. Some portray quiet sadness. "It was a long journey," she says.

There is also another person behind the scene who is responsible for bringing all of the aspects of this concert into a unified whole. Stage manager Kathleen Worley draws on her background as theater director most recently at Reed College into play. "A person in my role always coordinates the various aspects of the production and is the keeper of the vision" she says. She works closely with Nancy Wilhite to portray what she so clearly wanted to share with the audience from her initial response to the Getty Museum exhibit: to replicate as closely as possible the experience of praying at various times during the day and using the beautiful imagery and texts of the book to enhance that activity. "My job is to ask provocative questions and listen to what people say so that we can collaborate together to tell our story," she says.

As Kathleen explains, "I create the stage picture." And the true challenge for this concert is adapting to three very different church settings. The singers need to be blocked, with more movement and different positioning for this concert than at any other in In Mulieribus' history. The screen used for the visuals needs to be seen by an audience that is not in tiered seating. Church buildings have many different factors: electrical systems that can be modern or "of a certain age." Their open space in front of the room and placement of steps are unique to each setting. Also Kathleen needs to be sensitive to the singers' need for different interactions with each other depending on the particular piece. Lighting is a big challenge. The delicate atmosphere of candles needs to be weighed against practical issues of visibility and ease of movement. Kathleen has already developed a stage plan that will be different for each church. "This is the first time any of us has done anything like this," she says. Luckily the group of singers and the technical staff share that strong vision of showcasing the beauty in both music and art of these devotional pieces.

Both Sumi and Kathleen describe their involvement in this concert as a journey. Sumi calls it similar to Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole. They both are captivated – "stunned" was the word used by Sumi – by the beauty of the images they are working with. Anna Song is thrilled with the offering of these professionals in assisting the singers express the beauty of text and musical line. "The most enjoyable and interesting part of this project," she says, "is the collaboration. It's been a real joy to work with the others on that vision that Nancy had those many years ago."

The Abbey's Rare Book Collection

None of this would have been possible without Mount Angel Abbey having a sizable collection of rare books and the generosity of the abbey in allowing access to the digital images to In Mulieribus.

Victoria Ertelt, library administrator, is excited about sharing the beauty of these books. "In the first place," she says, "it's really amazing that we have this sizable a collection of rare books in this small little abbey in rural Oregon."

The monks have a history of appreciation for older books. Some of the original monks brought books from their mother abbey Engelberg in Switzerland when they settled in Oregon in 1882. Then in the 1930's one of the monks, Father Martin Pollard, who was studying in Rome, came upon a used bookstore in Aachen, Germany, that specialized in theology, history, and the sciences that was closing and offering their collection at a very reduced price. The abbey chapter voted to pay for the books and they were mailed to the abbey. Thus, the abbey was able to acquire 15,000 books shipped in 134 boxes from Germany for the stated price then of 3,300 Marks, or $785. The oldest book was printed in 1519, several from the 1700s, most of them from the 18th or 19th centuries. These books were considered invaluable in replacing a library that had been lost in a devastating fire of 1926 that reduced the entire monastic and college buildings to ash.

There is another interesting story about how the Books of Hours got added to the library. In the 1980s the abbey sent several of their rare books to Reed College for inclusion in an exhibit held there of rare manuscripts and books. Following that event, Mr. and Mrs. Eberle-Thompson of Portland (no relation to the Eberle family of Mt. Angel), who also had given books for that exhibit, decided to donate about 12 of them to the abbey for safe keeping and preservation. This couple had gone to Europe in the 1940s following the aftermath of World War II and purchased their medieval books there.

Victoria explains that another wonderful gift allowed the collection to be shared in our modern age. Dr. Stephen Delamarter, professor at George Fox College in Newberg, has a special love of Ethiopian icons and has visited that country a number of times, volunteering his services and expertise in digitizing their ancient artwork. He was planning on bringing a group of his graduate students with him and wanted them to gain experience in doing the same kind of work before going overseas. He contacted the abbey library and offered to digitize their collection of rare books. So what is now offered to anyone visiting the abbey library website (https://www.mountangelabbey.org/digitization-project/) is the result of one very intensive day's work on the part of Professor Delamarter and his students. "It was quite an achievement," says Victoria, "and we are so grateful because it allows us to share these books on the internet when we have to be so careful of the original copies, maintaining them in very controlled condition."

She is making a noteworthy exception to that rule: on the afternoon and evening of the In Mulieribus concert at the abbey, March 4, she will bring up a number of the Books of Hours and put them in display cases for people to peruse in the library lobby.

The books have been shared recently in exhibits at the Oregon Jewish Museum and the Multnomah County Central Library. The library was recently visited by an art historian from the Getty Museum who is working on her doctorate in medieval manuscript repair. She spent time with a recent acquisition of the abbey library, a 13th century bible, to see how it had been stitched in repairing.

Victoria is enthusiastic about the upcoming concert. "In Mulieribus was here several years ago for our Bach Festival, and they sounded so wonderful in the acoustics of our church. And to know that this time they will be also showcasing our own library collection is very exciting," she says.

The treasure she so carefully protects will be shared with many people who possibly were never aware of its existence. The concert-goers will be able to replicate the experience of the owners of these Books of Hours by entering a meditative and visual journey back to the Middle Ages. One could almost think that the books are alive again.

FEBRUARY 16, 2016 in CATHOLIC SENTINEL by geri ethen

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