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.
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.
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.
Concert Review: In Mulieribus
Teams that retain their players over several years are more likely to play better together. Witness the Amadeus String Quartet, a unit for 40 years, or in sports, Miami Heat/San Antonio Spurs. It is this, among other things, that makes In Mulieribus who they are: a constant in tuning, blend, and balance. The women think one another’s musical thoughts, hear their sisters’ voices almost before a musical utterance. They catch every wave together. In this case, familiarity breeds content.
On Sunday at southeast Portland’s St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, the premier women’s group, founded a decade ago by director Anna Song and former member Tuesday Rupp, offered a concert of music by English Renaissance composer William Byrd and two contemporaries: Peter (Petrus) Philips, and Richard Dering. This time around, we were also treated to guest director Kerry McCarthy, who is a published authority on Byrd. Her work with IM was, according to one member, collaborative, and joyous.
Byrd lived in the crucible of time when being an ardent Catholic, much less composing music for that Church, was risky at best. In a way, the musical Thomas More of his time, Byrd led a long life (1540-1623) which spanned, and mirrored musically, the emotional upheaval of England from the time of Henry the Eighth’s break with the Pope, past the death of Elizabeth I. McCarthy’s publisher says it best in the overview of her recent book on Byrd (Oxford University Press): “(the author) takes on the uncomfortable paradoxes of the composer’s life as a devout and influential Catholic who spent much of his career in the service of the English Protestant establishment."
In the flux of all this, he was able to compose countless masses, motets, and polyphonic madrigals, while serving the dual masters of his own spirituality, yet working as a court musician to Elizabeth I, and Director of Music at an Anglican Cathedral. In the meantime, he composed a great deal of “household music,” so-called by Dr. McCarthy, for use in private Catholic services in homes, at a time when public Catholic services were prohibited.
This music for private use was often sung by women and was a perfect fit for In Mulieribus in Sunday’s concert. Byrd’s legacy included some students who became great composers in their own right, including Dering and Philips.
The program mixed performances by the full ensemble with various combinations of duos and trios. One of the highlights was the duet team of Jo Ganske and Sue Hale. Accompanied by Hannah Brewer on the portative organ, those two alto voices were twins, whether by DNA or artistic design, and they worked beautifully in sync with one another. Another fine contribution in this vein was the solo by Catherine van der Salm, “O si quando videbo.” McCarthy contributed her own alto voice to Philips’s “O quam mira.” This is a well-schooled voice, captivatingly androgynous, a hybrid voice that can easily bridge the gap between alto and tenor. The voice of Hannah Penn shone brightly in “From Virgin’s womb” and in “Duo seraphim,” nicely partnered with Shaelyn Schneider.
Choosing the right venue is as important in the choral art as choosing the right singers and music. For this repertoire, St. Philip was an excellent choice. In Mulieribus chose to sing from three different locations in the sanctuary, each with its own acoustical properties: the back, very clear for the polyphony involved, and a ring time of about two seconds; the front, at least another second of ring time, but less supportive of polyphonic clarity for that reason; and the side, where there is a natural “shell,” still another variation in what the audience heard, maybe two and a half seconds ring time, and a bit clearer. How refreshing to hear a choir use the whole space, to capitalize on the best placement within the space. Brava!
A welcome part of the program was a set of three pieces played on the organ by Hannah Brewer, two dances (a galliard and a volta) and finally the “Queen’s Alman,” interspersed among the choral settings. These pieces are published for, and presumably originally played, on the virginal. Since the very fast runs were occasionally murky, one wonders if the instrument of choice here could have been a virginal (unlikely here) or harpsichord, and if using one of those plucked-string instruments instead of the organ, with its longer tones, would have helped clarity.
I myself would have welcomed a nod to the secular beyond the keyboard. Byrd composed many brilliant madrigals. Why not include a few of those to take a break from the inexorable liturgical texts? Or were secular texts disallowed here?
Programmatically, the best was the last: Byrd’s iconic Mass for Three Voices, raised a fourth for this group’s accessibility. The women owned this piece. Polyphonic lines flowed with the consistency of warm syrup. Phrases between sections were absolutely cloned. The group sang with a wide dynamic palette, without any one singer being over-parted and no “voluptuous” vibrato that would pervert pitches. These qualities pervaded the concert from beginning to end. And this is a team that should not trade or sell any of its players at anytime in the near future.
If you are a Byrd watcher, you’ll be able to see and hear many singers and fans as Portland’s annual Byrd Festival’s 17th edition gets underway in August at St. Stephen’s Catholic church, led by founder Dean Applegate and Director of Cantores in Ecclesia, Blake Applegate. McCarthy will be a guest there as well, along with British musician Mark Williams and David Trendell.